Fire and Pain

Suzanne.

I’d planned to use this blog in the near future to have a written “conversation” with someone who wouldn’t read it and couldn’t answer, but it wasn’t supposed to be you. I wanted to write one to Stephen’s grandma in an effort to get a handle on my concerns about her declining health, as opposed to something worse. But when I saw that George had called without leaving a message the other morning, I had an awful feeling that “something worse” had happened.

If he had just been calling to ask me to bring some North Carolina beer to the upcoming reunion, he would have left a message saying, “Bring some of the good stuff next weekend, tightwad!” (Albeit, probably with stronger language and/or a less flattering nickname.) But he didn’t.

When someone who never calls, calls without leaving a message, it means there’s something more serious than a stupid beer run on the horizon. All that morning, I tried to reach him and worried about what he’d wanted — but if someone had told me he was calling about you, I wouldn’t have believed them.

Maybe that’s why the news didn’t fully register when I finally heard from George. He’d sent an email not long after he’d tried to call me, but I didn’t logon until hours later. I’d just finished my meetings at work, and had sent Bryan a text to ask if he’d heard any news. When he texted back to say he hadn’t heard anything since receiving George’s email and ask if I’d spoken to any of the Ridgills, these were my replies:

“No, I haven’t seen the email. Bet it went to my old address; I’ll check.” (2:19 PM)

“Oh my God.” (2:23 PM)

“I feel sick.” (2:29 PM)

You used to compliment my writing, Suzanne, but let’s face it — those messages were flat-out trite. Nevertheless, they’re going to stand out in my memory forever.

For ten minutes I sat there, unable to think, move or communicate, my back resolutely turned to the rest of the office and the rest of the world, even as my cubicle felt more and more claustrophobic with every shallow breath. Ten minutes that felt like hours, refusing to believe or even understand what I’d just read.

I left the office in a hurry and managed to keep it between the lines on I-40, even while my vision blurred. But I held most of it in until I got home, where Kim opened the door with a greeting smile that disappeared as soon as she saw my face.

“What’s wrong?”

“I finally heard from George. He wasn’t calling about Mom, he was calling about Suzanne. She….”

I’m surprised she could understand the rest, as it came out in a torrent of half-garbled words and sobs. I didn’t want to say the words, because that would make it real.

I can easily imagine hundreds — if not thousands — of people feeling the same way as they’ve read or heard the news since then. That’s how many lives you touched over three short decades.

If you don’t believe me, you have only to look at your Facebook page; I hope you can see it from wherever you are. There’s been an outpouring, as well there should be. And there’s a common thread — the joy you brought wherever you went. You always gave it, because somehow you always had an abundance of it. Pretty amazing, considering your constant struggle to overcome chronic pain.

You fought against that so valiantly, it seemed that nothing else could beat you. But something else did.

I hate that there were other ailments, just waiting to fill in when that one abated. And I hate that someone so vivacious was prone to such debilitating symptoms. And I hate the doctors who couldn’t help you. And I hate the insurance companies who refused to cover what you needed. And I hate the editors who didn’t want to publish the exposé we pitched. And I hate the small-minded people who would never admit that your condition was anything more than a weakness when you were one of the strongest people I’ve known.

And I hate the world without you in it.

Know what else I hate? That you ever thought your illnesses were a burden on your loved ones, because there wasn’t a loved one out there who wouldn’t have gladly doubled that burden if it could have brought you some relief.

Today, the great irony is, that’s exactly what’s happened. For the first time since your youth, you’re free from pain. But ours has increased. And we will carry it for you until we see you again.

That burden felt its heaviest as I was looking through “old” photos, and came across some from the wedding. Remember how carefully you planned the menu, to avoid any reactions? The food was safe, but someone didn’t think about what it was cooked in. As a result, you spent your wedding night at the ER, but even then, your indomitable spirit shone as you refused to change out of your bridal gown and into a medical one. It was your wedding night, and by God, you were going to keep wearing your wedding dress!

That should have been a story for you to tell your grandchildren. Now it’s one for Kate to tell your grandnieces and -nephews. Don’t worry; we’ll make sure she remembers it.

I remember seeing Pete just before we drove away that night. He was standing outside the big bay door to Flanders, shaking his head at the thought of his daughter having to leave her own wedding reception for yet another migraine. I leaned out the window, thanked him for having been such a gracious host, and laughingly told him, “Hey, she’s on Stephen’s premium now.” I think it’s safe to say Stephen would have gladly paid that premium for a lot longer than he had to.

These memories inspired me to read the speech I gave that night — I felt incredibly honored that you two asked me to write it, you know. And I was pretty proud of that speech. I even thought about quoting some of it here. But when I read it, all of its wide-eyed optimism felt too painfully heavy.

I spoke of memories that night, wishing great ones upon you both, over a wide span of years. Not even two have passed since then.

But maybe that’s the wrong way to look at this. There might not be as many memories as we’d all hoped, but that has a bright side — when something is in short supply and high demand, its value increases. So the loved ones you left behind must be sitting on a gold mine, and I hope the others will agree with me that we should cherish the memories we have, holding them forever as precious commodities.

People are trading those commodities in the stories and comments they’re sharing on your Facebook page. Some of them will break your heart — the two-worder from someone I assume to be one of your students nearly shattered me: “Mrs. Ridgill?” Tentative and cautious — almost a plea, begging you in a say-it-ain’t-so tone to answer the question she didn’t dare ask. I can’t blame her.

Other messages are more positive, focusing on your good-natured, fun-loving personality, and how you went out of your way to put a smile on other people’s faces. You inspired me, personally, and I always looked on you as a sort of little sister. You were a true beacon, Suzanne, and you shone on a lot of people. In many ways, your fire still burns.

It was that thought that brought me to James Taylor’s Fire and Rain that first day. And then I kept coming back. Maybe because your name is a big part of the song. Maybe because the song just gives me comfort. Whatever the reason, I played it all afternoon and into the night — many times over.

Then I did the most egotistical-yet-tacky thing a writer can do — I changed the lyrics to suit my situation. I hope you heard me singing it all those times over the last few days:

Just yesterday morning, George let us know you were gone.
Suzanne, the pain you felt put an end to you.
I sat down last evening and I rewrote this song;
I just can’t quite figure how to send it through.

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain,
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end,
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
But I always thought that I’d see you again.

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus?
You gotta help me understand.
I just don’t know why you took her light away.
My heart is aching and my mind is on end.
Please say she’s not really gone today.

Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain,
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end,
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
But I always thought that I’d see you again.

Been forcing my mind to a happy time,
My back turned toward what’s done.
Lord knows when the memories flow, they can turn me upside down.
No more data or time on the telephone line
To talk about things to come.
Sweet dreams and prayer routines in pieces on the ground.

Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain,
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end,
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
But I always thought that I’d see you, baby, one more time again, now….

Suzanne, I wish you didn’t have to go. But I thank you for the fire. And I’m sorry for the rain.

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About Dan Bain

Dan is an award-winning humorist, features writer, emcee and entertainer from Raleigh, NC. His collection of humor essays, A Nay for Effort, has earned him fans from one end of his couch to the other. Why not join them and buy one? (You won't have to sit on his couch.) Dan will donate 10 percent of the book's proceeds to education. You can check it out at www.danbain.net; thanks!
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