I quit crying, when my dead friend asked me nicely to stop
When I was 22-years-old, my friend Caroline was killed. It was five o’clock in the afternoon on a sunny street in San Diego. She was driving home from work and a drunk tow-truck driver blew a red light and slammed into the driver’s side door of her car. She died instantly.
A few months later, she returned to me, to share a message from the beyond.
I met Caroline in college, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was a tiny happy girl, who wore homemade tie-dyed t-shirts, didn’t eat meat, and refused to use electric blankets, even on the coldest Wisconsin nights, because she thought they “put negative energy into the world.”
Caroline had attended an alternative high school in New York where she was encouraged to follow her heart and work at her own pace, so she could never figure out why all of her college professors insisted she turn assignments in on time. “I didn’t feel ready to finish it,” she would tell me in frustration when I asked her why she neglected to turn something in. Her professors were unimpressed but I thought it was charming.
My junior year in college, Caroline and I decided on the spur of the moment, to spend winter break driving to New Mexico to see the sights and look at grad schools. We hiked in state parks, wore leather moccasins, and ate the best Mexican food in the world at tiny road side stands.
Then in our last year of college, while most of us spent our afternoons drinking pints of beer and blowing off our homework, she spent a semester abroad in Colombia where she studied urban planning in emerging markets. She wasn’t afraid of the political unrest or the drug trafficking that pervaded every news story about the country at that time. She just wanted to experience the world.
When it was time for her to come home, I remember her telling me a story of how she got into a screaming match with an armed Colombian official who claimed her visa was out of order and wouldn’t let her leave the country. She slammed her tiny American hand down on the table in front of him and demanded that her let her by or she would call the American consulate. Miraculously, instead of throwing her in jail he let her pass.
She laughed about the experience, but it made me shiver. She could have been hurt or worse, I thought.
A year later she was dead. I remember thinking how ironic it was, that after surviving on her own in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, she was killed in California, driving home from a boring job in a municipal city planning office, minding her own business.
The week she was killed, my roommate Jennifer and I were planning a road trip to go see her in California. When we got the call that she had been killed I didn’t believe it. How could she be dead when we had plans to see her just a few days later? I couldn’t make sense of it.
I went to work that day, as a waitress at California Pizza Kitchen. Still in a daze, unfamiliar with how one reacts when their 22-year-old friend is suddenly dead, I didn’t know what else to do.
My manager found me an hour later, curled in a ball under the sink in the employee bathroom sobbing into my canvas apron. That was the first time I cried about Caroline, but it wouldn’t be the last. I told him what had happened and he took me by the hand, walked me home, and told me to take as much time as I needed.
The next day Jennifer, two other friends, and I piled into my car and drove to Georgia where her parents now lived, to attend Caroline’s funeral.
“We should be here for her wedding,” I thought as we gathered at the somber event. I remember watching her mother, who spoke little English, looking helpless and terrified as we filed past her trying to think of something to say that might ease her sorrow. I told her parents stories about our days in New Mexico, and the stories she had told me on that trip about her youth which made them smile. Her father saw me as a link to his lost daughter, and when it was time for us to leave, he held my hand so tightly as though he didn’t want me to go.
I cried for days; all through the funeral, and those nights in the cheap motel where my friends and I slept two to a bed. Then for months after we returned, I would break into sobs, often late at night while sharing drinks at a bar, or sitting home alone with sad music playing in the background. Anything that reminded me of her – a song, a story, a reference to college, or Colombia or butterflies -- they all made me cry. I felt the loss of Caroline like it was a hole in my chest and nothing would ever fill it back up.
One night, after a very public, bleary crying jag in front of a group of relative strangers at the bar where I had recently gotten a job, I went home early feeling hollow and drained. Falling into a heavy sleep I had a dream about college. A large group of my friends were sitting together around a vast oak table in a sunny lodge, laughing and drinking beer and telling stories.
Then I looked over their heads and realized Caroline was there watching me. She wasn’t a part of the dream. It was as if the dream was a movie screen and she was standing just outside of it. She reached toward me, her hand passing through the bodies of the people sitting beside me. She took my hand and pulled me away from the table and to her side.
“Sarah,” she said to me. “You’ve got to stop crying. It’s all right. I’m okay. And you need to let me go.”
Then I woke up.
That was 21 years ago and I still remember her face and those words as vividly as if it had happened last night.
I know that a lot of people dream about the people they’ve lost, and perhaps that is all this was. But I believe it wasn’t just a dream. I believe that Caroline came to me. That she saw my grief and she wanted it to stop.
I also believe what she said was true -- that she is okay, wherever she is. And while I still occasionally get teary when I think of who she might have become, I stopped crying about her after that night. I felt peace for the first time over her death and I knew I had to let her go.
Besides, she came all that way to see me, so I figured it was the least that I could do.