My transformation began with a tragedy. I have known my friend Marge for over twenty years. Marge is a tall, pretty woman, with huge brown eyes and flawless skin. She just turned fifty years old. Her short dark hair is always in place and she has perfectly applied makeup. She is a put-together woman who is often dressed in a black ensemble with a neatly tied scarf that adds a splash of color. I first met her when she worked at the local insurance agency. It was called the Auto Wizard. In the store front window, there was a nearly six foot tall dusty plastic wizard, holding a giant crystal ball that was equally dusty. It was quite a display amid the dying downtown Main Street. I first visited the store when I returned to the area after being on the road for months. I was an irresponsible twenty year old. Marge and I were from different worlds. I remember her long nails gleaming with red polish and the shine of her expensive jewelry glimmering as she sorted through my paperwork mess. I stood there in my patchouli and pot smoke soaked clothes. I wore fringe ripped jeans and a long flowing shirt. She gave me a slight and subtle roll of her eyes each time I came in and pleaded to have my auto insurance reinstated immediately. She was stern, but helped me out every time without a lecture.
Years later, our paths would cross again. She was a regular at the Sesame Seed, the restaurant that I have worked at on and off over the years. Marge was a local girl who had been coming to the restaurant since she went to the catholic school around the corner. Marge is thick-skinned like many of us, and she has a genuine quality that allows her to see through any phoniness, almost to an uncomfortable level. She has loyalty to her friends and calls them out when she picks up on their negativity and self-doubt. Our friendship solidified, and over time Marge became a person that my son Elijah and I trusted. She was on a short list of people that I could count on. She would help me with Elijah, and provide him with rides to places. At the restaurant, She would pull me away from trying to help Elijah with homework at the start of my shift. Seeing my impatience growing, she would do what no one else had done for me in my single parenting life. She would say :"Heather, I got this. I will help him. Take a breath. Go outside. It's okay."
Over the years, Marge also has maintained a tradition with Elijah that has such significance to me because we have so few rituals in our lives. Every year for the past five years, she has picked Elijah up before his birthday. She takes him to the toy store and lets him pick out whatever he wants. Elijah has never had this from anyone else. It is not the act of her buying something for him so much as the commitment she has to him. It is the way she has established herself not only as a regular at the restaurant, but also as a stable constant in our lives. This is a rarity. Marge puts everyone else ahead of her, often to a fault. I believe our trust is mutual. Marge and I do not have the typical relationship. We have rarely gone out or gotten together outside of the restaurant. Yet she is always there, helping out when needed, lending her support in the often chaotic environment to not just to me, but to all of us.
We all knew that Marge cared deeply for her parents. She is a single woman who lives alone. She added to her own daily grind by caring for her aging parents in the next town over. There were times that it took a toll on her, but she was devoted to them. She organized them, helped them with tasks like doctors appointments, insurance, mailing things out, and caring for their home. Her parents were well known in their community, and were politically and socially active. They were so much of her life.
On a Tuesday morning in January, the couple was driving home at eleven o'clock. It was a frigid day with bright sun reflecting on the snow leading them down a road they had travelled thousands of times before. In a spilt second, they were hit twice by another car. They died together, within ten minutes apart.
Over the years I have developed an overpowering fear of driving. It began years ago on the day I was pinned between two cars in a freakish accident. For years, I would not drive. I relied on others to drive me. I think this fear may be why I stayed with certain boyfriends as long as I did. I sheltered myself from news reports about accidents because these stories would immobilize me for several days. They would trigger a state of post-traumatic stress, fueled by the text and pictures from each news story. It would take days for this horrific residue to leave me. I longed to be desensitized, and to carry on like the rest of the world does. Then I would deal with a few bad driving days, flinching at thoughts of the sound of crunching metal, and the accompanying sadness and fear. This time it was different; this incident put me on a terrifying, spiraling descent. I came to the realization that what happened to my dear friend was my worst fear come true . It was not only the dying in a horrific and random accident a half of mile from my house, but it was that Marge's world had changed, every single part of it, in one breath, and forever. In the first few weeks after the accident, I spun in an internal circle. I realized when I drove to therapy less than a mile from my home, and pictured dying over and over again, that the post traumatic stress disorder was overtaking me. I burst into the office and laid it out to my therapist. I tried to unravel the tight knot that was choking me. I exposed my obsessive thoughts, my fear-driven anxieties, the darkest bloodiest ones. I slowly tried over the next few weeks to piece it together and to come to terms with what was gripping me. I was short-tempered, angry and fearful. In the last few years, these emotions were nothing new to me, but now they were becoming unmanageable. It felt as though I was on the edge of my own existence or worse: being buried alive. I hit an emotional bottom, and relived it over and over again. I had no ammunition to fight back.
So I reached out for help. I spoke to several people and put my ego aside. I revealed what I was dealing with and that I could not escape the torturous thoughts that were consuming me. I was trying to put out a raging fire with a dixie cup full of water. It helped me to admit that I was powerless. It was indeed a rough few weeks. I was soul searching and fighting off the demons that kicked me when I was already down. They cackled from the side of the road, the road that I had traveled so many times before.
Then something happened. On one afternoon, in the thick of one of the worst and coldest winters in memory, Elijah and I pulled into the driveway, preparing for our evening. We gathered our things from the car, and simultaneously noticed a large crow peering down on us from a very low hanging cable wire in our driveway. We looked up at the crow who was silent and still against the stark gray sky. We walked into the house, glancing over our shoulders. The crow was eyeing us as well. . Later that afternoon, we noticed the circling of crows in the back yard. They were noisy and disruptive. I thought that it made sense that the crows were there, they reflected on the crow moon, and the cawing signifying death of winter and the growth of spring. We sat in the window and watched them. An hour later, Elijah came into the kitchen with tears in his eyes. He stumbled on the words, telling me a crow was on the back porch, and that he thought it was dead. I took his hand and walked out onto the porch. Under the chair that was covered in frozen snow and debris was a crow sitting peacefully and still. We knew that life had just left his body. Elijah was upset, but I felt a chill of connection, a sense of catharsis. For the first time in a while, things began to make sense, and I was open to listen. My fear, and my cast of personal demons were holding me back, and filling me with dread and debilitating anxiety. They also fed my co-dependence. I saw in that death of that crow something else. Nothing would prepare me for death, but I needed to accept it, and perhaps it would be the realest and most peaceful parts of my existence.
I see Marge every day, and know that while there is sadness in her eyes, she is working through her journey, her life, her love, and all that she has to give to the world. The robins have begun to show up in the yard, working fast and furiously in preparation for a new season, for rebirth and for a new life. The crows circle the sky on my morning run, cawing with deliberation and intensity. I watch them fly high into the trees. They invoke those feelings again. I think about the uncertainty of life and mourn those who have passed. I pause for a moment, like that crow on that afternoon. I think about how sad Elijah was that day, and also how there is as much beauty in life as there is in death. I keep feeling like I am waiting for something, and I am. I am waiting for the realness of death, and sweetness of life, and like the crow, I will soar with spirit into the light as well as into the the dark.