Monday, June 17, 2013

Remembering Rachel a Year Later

My best friend has been gone for a year now.  A year is a milestone.  In Poland, it's considered the appropriate amount of time one mourns for a very close deceased relative.  This is done (almost exclusively) by women in part through the wearing of all black throughout this time period.  It's a reminder both to the person in mourning and to others that a great loss has been suffered.  I think sometimes we try to minimize the grief because it's so painful.  While I definitely think there's a place for looking on the bright side ("She's no longer in pain", "He's in a better place now", "We'll see each other again someday"), it is important to let yourself actually feel the hard, ugly, disturbing emotions as well.

I have had periodic dreams of Rachel over the past 12 months.  At first, I welcomed them as signs that she was indeed in a better place and visiting me in my subconsciousness to let me know this.  But as the first year anniversary began to approach, the dreams led to me waking up in tears and remembering what it was like in the months and days leading up to her death.

Now that I am pregnant, I have conflicting feelings.  On one hand, I wish she were here for me to share this time with her.  Even more, I wish that her desire for us both to be pregnant at the same time and become "mommies" together could've come true.  Remembering her now just reminds me that this didn't happen.  On the other hand, her memory still makes me angry and sad, and I now worry about any negative effects of grief on my developing baby.  I don't want baby to think mommy is sad because life on the outside sucks!

Tomorrow will mark the first anniversary of Rachel's funeral, and also what would've been her and her husband's eight wedding anniversary.  In honor of this, I wanted to just briefly reflect on a few of the memories of that day, because I think it's important to incorporate her funeral and burial into my framework of our relationship, to better ease me into a life without her, without a best friend.

Alex and I flew to Florida for the funeral.  As we entered the funeral home, Rachel's sister-in-law, who had apparently remembered me from Rachel's wedding, welcomed me with a hug.  Soon, one of Rachel's grandmothers (and she had a fun family tree!) greeted me, saying "I knew you'd be here."  Indeed.  I hadn't realized until that day how important I must've been to Rachel as a friend, since so many of her loved ones knew me. I was told we should sit in the family section, because we were practically family.

I went up to greet Rachel's mom, step-father, brother, and sister-in-law.  Then I went up to Rachel's open casket.  I recognized her, yet I distinctly remember thinking that "Rachel", the animated soul that I knew as a friend, was not in that body, in that box.  They had dressed her up, combed her hair, put on her make-up, but she was no longer there.

On the flight there, the airline was gracious enough to bump both of us up to business class.  It was there that I noticed Alex's half & half that he was using in his coffee.  Rachel and I had an inside joke from our teenage years.  We used to hang out late at night at Denny's, and I once made a comment asking what does "ha-ha, lf-lf" mean, because the way the words were written on the container separated the first and second syllables down the middle.  Rachel laughed, corrected me, and never let me live it down after that.  So I got an idea to return the favor of an inside joke by keeping one of the half & half containers in my purse.

As I stood there alone by the side of Rachel's casket, I carefully slipped the empty half & half container under the scarf she had wrapped around her and her arms.  For my 30th birthday, she made me a frame with three pictures.  The frame read "laugh", and she added above that the words "she makes me..."  In the middle was a picture of the two of us at her 30th birthday party.  To the left was a picture of me reading a book on women she had given me, and to the right a picture of me hugging a palm tree.  Surrounding the photographs, she had written, "What makes Karolina so great?... Her strong beliefs (first picture, referring to my early feminist days), her wonderful friendship (second picture, referring to my trip to Florida for her birthday), her quirkiness (third picture, referring to my sense of humor.)  And so, I thought she would appreciate a half & half reference now.

I spoke at Rachel's funeral, per her widower's request.  I was the only one to actually stick to the requested 2 minute limit, but that's fine.  I felt I needed to redeem myself after I bombed big time trying to give a toast at her wedding, where I was so overcome by emotion that I doubt anyone could decipher what I was blubbering.  I even got the crowd (Yes, there was a crowd of people whose lives she touched who came to celebrate her life.  They had to add chairs up and down the aisles to fit everyone into the church!) to laugh when I mentioned that Rachel learned how to say "I'm 19 years old" and never adjusted it as she grew older.  I remember reaching out to her father's shoulder on my way up, making eye contact with her mother while I was speaking, and hugging her husband as I was returning to my seat.  I ended my eulogy in Spanish, a language she was fluent in and loved as long as I knew her.  "Te amo, chica.  Nos vemos al otro lado."  ("I love you, girl.  I'll see you on the other side.")

The burial was not what I expected, as it was my first American funeral.  I abided by my own, perhaps Polish sentiments and Alex and I remained in our car as the crew finished covering her grave even after everyone else left.  I couldn't imagine leaving before she was properly laid to rest.  When they finished, we approached to say a final goodbye and take a few pictures.  That's when I noticed that they had put the wrong name plate at her site!  We rushed to track down the crew and had them call the funeral director.  We were told they would come back and fix it.  Meanwhile, I made a make-shift corrected name plate with her name and dates of birth and death.  I couldn't imagine the added grief the mistake might've caused Rachel's mom or husband if, upon their return, they found her grave improperly marked.

The reception was surreal.  It was my first time visiting her house.  Her widower gave me a tour, and I remember distinctly as he softly pushed on her glasses case on the dresser and commented on the his & hers sinks he was grateful for because of her hair clogging up the drain.  He also showed us where he had found her on the day of her death.

I mingled with her family, some friends.  I saw evidence of her influence throughout the house.  I cringed at the thought of being in her widower's shoes, surrounded by remnants of her but not quite her. And in keeping with Rachel's expectations (which she voiced to me as we discussed my planned visit to see her), I hugged the palm tree in her front yard. 

I remember thinking in the weeks following her death if I would have a new best friend down the road.  I questioned if it's normal to have a best friend, and if that one passes away, a new one arises.  I entertained the idea of going through life without a best friend.  Now, a year later, I understand.

If anyone asks, I used to have a best friend.  Her name was Rachel, and she loved me unconditionally.  Now she is home with God, where I will join her someday.  There is no replacing her.

Rachel's tombstone.  Note the picture of a teacher in the upper right corner.

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