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Somewhere in Starkville

August 26, 2014


I keep this picture in plain sight at Talarico House.  It used to be buried in a book, but more recently it’s been out.  Sometimes on top of my knitting needle box, sometimes tucked into the top of my jewelry box.  I see it every day.  It is nearly twenty years old.  It may be already that old.

Three of these people carry the memory of the other in their hearts.  As I do.  My senior year of high school, the girl in the hat died.  She had been very ill and while I wasn’t close to her myself, she was treasured by people close to me and, by extension, I loved her too.  Imagine our heartbreak when, the very next year, my sister’s closest friend was diagnosed with the same type of brain tumor. The same aggressive, terrible disease that we had just watched take L. While we tried to be hopeful, the weight of our recent loss was ever present.

I was away at school.  Miles from my family and not finding my place very well at the college, I found myself whisked off on a Habitat for Humanity working spring break trip to Starkville, Mississippi.  No cell phones, no mobile internet devices.  I was cut off and helpless waiting for news of J and knowing I probably wouldn’t hear anything at all. 

The site director made us all laugh.  He yelled phrases that still make little sense to me.  “Don’t worry ’bout the mule goin’ blind, just looooad the wagon!”  My carpentry skills were non-existent, but I was good at picking up nails.  We learned that all of us loved the ka-thunk sound of the nails driving into the concrete straight out of the nail gun.  We slept on the floor of a church and made connections with other student groups and with the members of the congregation.  One night, I couldn’t sleep at all and made my way into the sanctuary just to breathe and to pray.  There were no words. 

The next night I made a collect call (remember those?) to my parents’ house.  As soon as my mother answered the phone, I knew.  My sister was heartbroken. We all were.  I had no understanding, still have no understanding, as to why these things happen.  So much pain.

On our last night there, we had the opportunity to write something on the structure of the house before the drywall went up.  As we ate with the future home-owners and celebrated their joyful future, I thought of all the things L and J wouldn’t experience.  I wrote on the wall, “For LSEA and JSS.  For the homes and families you would have had. For the love we have for you. May this house be full of love and joy.”

I am beginning to look for a house of my own.  My bears are beginning high school and third grade.  I have not forgotten the beautiful young women I knew so long ago.  And so I keep the picture out to remind me.  To help me honor the gifts I have been given and to bravely face the challenges in front of me.

We planted trees near the high school in their memory.  There will be trees for them at my new house too.

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