Grief doesn’t always give fair warning before picking you by the scruff of the neck and shaking you until both eyes leak copious amounts of tears. No, sometimes grief slides in without even a whisper, wraps its arms around you and squeezes so gently you don’t even realize it’s to blame for your distress until you’re writhing on the floor in agony.
Today, grief was triggered by a song I’d never heard before. It was an Emmylou Harris cover of the John Prine song, Hello In There.
The damned song grabbed me by the throat and choked tears out of me. I’d already been thinking of old friends who’d died way too young, and the song added to my melancholy.
Today would’ve been the 65th birthday of my first real friend, the first bond formed on my own, without my parents’ intervention. Johnnimae Bachus, my polar opposite.
We first met in Sunday school at Calvary Baptist Church, gravitating to one another in that mysterious way children do. Johnnimae was petite and ladylike while I was a gangly weirdo. Her mother created all of Johnniemae’s wardrobe—each dress was perfect. She could twirl a full circle with her skirt floating elegantly around her, suspended in beauty above her perfect little knees. When I tried to emulate her, my sturdy shirtwaist clung to my skinny legs and I looked like a dork,
We attended the same kindergarten—she cried for her mama until she saw that I was there. I felt quite emboldened by her confidence in me. Still I tried to copy her in everything she did. She’d color a page in blues and greens, so would I. She’d express a song preference and it would become mine. One day she became fed up with my copycat mentality and ruined her picture by coloring it in bold black marks. She did me a favor that day and I developed my own style.
Johnnimae moved away in our eighth or ninth grade year, and due to some silly school girl politics, I wasn’t invited to her going away party. I lost track of her, but we reunited at a mutual friend’s wedding several years later. I was the matron of honor and she was maid of honor. She was still perfect, while I was still a dork.
Not long after, that same mutual friend called me out of the blue one sunny day to tell me Johnnimae had died. She was maybe 24 or 25 and poised to graduate from pharmacy school. She was engaged to be married. Her life was filled with joy and accomplishments and a world of possibilities. Then, on one ordinary day she went for a swim with friends and somehow ingested or inhaled an amoeba and died soon after. The shock at her loss was immense. This golden girl was no longer in this world. How could that be?
So today I cried for her. Big old tears that wouldn’t stop and left my nose red and my eyes bloodshot. I cried while listening to Emmylou Harris sing about growing old—a privilege Johnnimae never had.