Thursday, December 07, 2006

on being a friend

my heart weeps for the family of james kim, who died in an oregon wilderness while seeking help for his family stranded in a snowstorm. i am sorry for the grief you now bear. my heart weeps for you.

i, too, lost a friend once who became stranded in a snowstorm.

i met cheryl in high school in our small town in southeastern ohio, cheryl being one year younger than i in a school that served an entire county. i was from a conservative minister’s family, and while i did not have the opportunity to participate in the school’s many extracurricular activities, i was an academic and a class officer and had many friends. cheryl, on the other hand, was from an extremely poor family, had few if any friends, and suffered sorrowfully at the hands of fellow students who tormented her. cheryl and her family were taunted for their scruffy dresses, their out-of-fashion shoes, their unkempt hair, the heavy scent of burnt wood and coal that clung to their clothing. for cheryl’s family, childhood was grievous.

i met cheryl in the library, where i spent considerable time during the final months of my senior year in school. she sought my assistance with her homework, which i was glad to give, and we became acquainted. i easily could have been too busy for cheryl, for i had a demanding academic schedule and a full life, but cheryl needed someone to talk to, so i listened. she became my friend. we talked about history and geometry, about hairdos and boys and music, and about dreams for the rest of our lives. we shared the library for quite several months but finally the end of school arrived—i gave cheryl one of my senior class photographs and a hug, i graduated and married, and i left the country. i never saw cheryl again.

during the winter following my graduation and departure from our town, cheryl was driving through the heart of a forest in the middle of a blizzard when her car skidded in the ice and snow and slid into a ditch. she found herself stranded in a seemingly endless snowstorm, and in her efforts to keep warm, she kept the car’s engine running. as snow piled upon and around the car, the exhaust pipe became obstructed and cheryl became overcome by exhaust fumes. it was a couple of weeks before cheryl’s family found her car and her lifeless body.

i was living in germany during this time and was unaware of cheryl’s untimely death. however, in the preparations for her funeral, her family remembered the friend she had so often spoken of, the scholar she so admired, and the person she felt was the only one who had ever shown her kindness. cheryl’s mother slipped my photograph into her hands, and cheryl was buried with my picture in her casket.

many years have passed since then but every time i hear of someone’s struggle with being stranded in a blizzard, i remember cheryl and what she taught me of the importance of kindness, of tenderness, of friendship.

sometimes i look at my life and bewail what feels like too little accomplishment and even far too little growing and deepening. but on a day like today when i remember cheryl , i realize whatever promises my life may give birth to, nothing i do will ever be greater than this, that i was someone’s friend.

and i am grateful to cheryl for teaching me my most precious gift.

photography by permission

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