I was never the kind of kid who had a lot of friends.
Maybe it’s because I lived in half a dozen states by the time I went to college. Maybe it’s because I’m introverted. It probably had a lot to do with the fact that when you’re a kid growing up in a chaotic household with people who are struggling with sobriety (among other things), it’s hard to make connections with other kids when you don’t feel safe bringing anyone to your home. Sleep-overs and play dates are the cornerstone of relationship-building in the kid universe, after all.
After my family settled in Wasilla, Alaska (yes, that Wasilla) when I was nine, I spent a lot of time alone. We had a handful of neighbors on a (then) remote road that led to the mountains. I spent a lot of time out in the woods that surrounded our place. And, a consummate nerd, I read a lot.
Of course, as a desperately lonely kid with a volatile home life, I threw myself almost violently into school clubs and after-school activities. I was in band (naturally), choir, Orff ensemble (a special, even geekier band!), student council, and Girl Scouts (admit it, you’re not surprised). By the time I got to junior high, I was awash in so much loneliness and near death-grip levels of neediness that even my one friend from grade school dumped me.
So naturally, the thing to do was run for student body vice president against the most popular girl in school.
And like every classic ’80s teen dramedy, I lost in spectacular fashion. Dressed a little like Molly Ringwald’s character at the beginning of Pretty in Pink (I actually did have the same brooch pinned at the top of my button-up blouse worn with a vest), I had an earnestly naive speech, gripped in my sweaty hands, about how I was going to change things. My charismatic opponent? Well, she stood up on her mile-long legs in a mini skirt, flicked her gorgeous, long blonde hair and, I think, she winked her sparkling blue eyes while saying something like, “Wasilla Junior High rules!” So… it was not a close race.
The only upside to losing so triumphantly was that I did meet a lot of people in my campaigning. (I had the geek vote LOCKED!) And campaigning gave me more confidence to figure out how to have conversations with beings more animated than trees. I also discovered that I was able to make people laugh. I was by no means slaying people with Chris Rock material in the cafeteria, but it should never be underestimated how useful laughter can be. You can navigate quite a ways outside your social circle on the power of laughter. (But only if they are laughing with you, of course.)
Thank God I learned how to make an ass of myself in order to get laughs, or Jamie Brown would have never given me the time of day.
I met Jamie in a junior high math class. She struck me as a spoiled, rich brat but she had the kind of pushy, self-confident swagger that I could never resist. There was something about her that seemed like a challenge. She wore loafers without socks in the middle of winter — in Alaska. She didn’t bother following trends, because she read fashion magazines and was already copying the latest thing from New York or LA (which I don’t think I need to tell you was the sartorial equivalent of another planet, compared to pre-internet, circa 1989 Wasilla). She was cool and detached and without saying a word, you knew that she could give a flying fuck what you thought about her. Basically, she was a total bad-ass.
The first thing Jamie said to me was, “Oh my God, are you actually trying to befriend me?”
The average geek might have been crushed, but not me. I had already been humiliated in front of the entire school. There was no dignity left to lose.
But things did get off to a rocky start. In fact, I had kind of given up on making friends with Jamie. I had tried all my A-material on her to no avail. And she had no interest in the things that most of the girls in our school cared about. There just didn’t seem to be any common ground. In a last-ditch effort I made an off-hand remark about writing short stories and she said she dabbled in drawing and painting. I remember saying how it was interesting that we both liked the arts. And then it seemed like she and I didn’t speak again for a month. Maybe that’s just my fuzzy memory. But even when she and I used to try and reconstruct it, we could never seem to put a finger on some moment or reason why one day Jamie turned to me at the end of class and said, “What are you doing after school on Friday?”
And pretty much from that day on, we became inseparable, insufferable teenage best friends.
The first night I went to her house for a sleep-over, I spent two hours cleaning up her room for her because it was so filthy (we found two moldy sandwiches and a half-eaten burrito, among other things) I refused to sleep on the floor. If my amazing feats of geekitude hadn’t repelled her already, let’s be honest, my being a total neat-freak to her uber-slob was not going to gum up the burgeoning friendship. Indeed, it was the first of many sleep-overs filled with giggling about boys, playing Depeche Mode tapes until they wore out, getting new high scores on Paperboy, and plotting any escape from Wasilla.
Like any great friendship, we were both enriched and changed by it over time.
Once we became deeply friended, we shared all the joys and pains in our lives. We became fiercely loyal to each other, as close as I can imagine sisterhood to be (she and I both have only brothers). She went to all my band concerts and I encouraged her to paint, especially early on when she didn’t know if she had the nerve. (Amazing talent!) We cheered each other on in our early forays into dating. And we were there for each other through the really hard stuff. She knew all about the sexual abuse I endured. And, in fact, her family tried to help and kept their home open to me any night of the week — a port in the storm, if you will.
And there was so much fun!
It was Jamie who first introduced me to Jane’s Addiction, The Smiths, Pearl Jam, and Nirvana. (Well, she played me my first Grateful Dead album, too, but I like to forget that ever happened.) We went to all-ages clubs and danced until the early morning in the cave-like goth room. We ventured to raves and underground concerts in warehouses. We dyed each other’s hair stupid colors and painted our nails black while listening to Robert Smith.
After a couple years, Jamie told me that if it hadn’t been for me and our friendship, she wouldn’t have even gotten into the alternative scene or been brave enough to pursue painting (she was in classes and had gone to an invitation-only summer camp by then). She told me that she had always liked the alternative clothes and music but was scared to be and dress so outside the box. But when we became friends she saw how much I was always just myself, even though I never quite fit in, and that gave her the inspiration to truly let her freak flag fly, too. I think that’s funny. Because when I met Jamie, I was always trying so hard to be like the cool kids and fit in. And I could never figure out why I didn’t. (I thought it was because my socks didn’t match my top and I didn’t have a cool backpack.) And after I lost the election, I just gave up on it. Something inside just said, “Well fuck it, then. I’m me.”
Then again, it was probably all the times she went to the grocery store with me and my mother would break out in show tunes in the produce section while I sang back-up. It wasn’t my fault. It was the only way to get my mom to stop! Poor Jamie. She’d turn beat red and stomp off to the opposite side of the store, ignoring us so no one would know we were there together. (Which only made us follow her, singing louder.)
I have no idea what Jamie ever saw in me or how our friendship grew such deep roots. But I am so grateful that it did.
And that’s why Dec. 19 is always such a hard day for me. This day 18 years ago, my phone rang in the wee hours of the morning. Jamie was dead and the world would never be the same.
Jamie died in a car crash during a bad winter storm. She was rushing home from her babysitting job. She was rushing because she wanted to make it into Anchorage the next day, so we could go Christmas shopping together. Jamie drove an old car and the breaks were bad. She skidded into an on-coming SUV. Even though it was a low-speed wreck, since she didn’t have her seat belt on, her body was ejected from the car on impact and she died on the pavement, the snow swirling around her in the dark. I still wonder about the driver of that SUV. What a heavy burden to carry. Death is so unfair.
Dec. 19 is just six days before Christmas, so her funeral was on Christmas Eve. And it took me a long time before I could see the twinkling Christmas lights on my then-boyfriend’s (now husband’s) parent’s house and not feel a flush of anger and loss. The day Jamie died was a Sunday. I know because I was supposed to go to church with my boyfriend’s family. And when I called in grief to get comfort, I had to tell his parents what had happened. It was the first time I had to say, “Jamie is dead,” out loud and I hated them for that. They wanted me to go to their house, because they come from the Midwest, where everyone gathers after tragedy and eats food. When I got there some hours later, I remember my boyfriend’s mom (now my mother-in-law) coming out and meeting me on the front walkway in the crisp, cold air. She captured me in a big hug, tears streaking down her face. I was confused how a woman who had never met Jamie could be crying so hard at her death. And as I stood there in that hug thinking those thoughts, the Christmas lights behind her seemed to be shouting their color — green, blue, red.
Today is the 18th anniversary of a day that changed my life and I still miss Jamie. And it’s strange but even the way I miss her has changed over the years, almost like our friendship has carried on.
Of course, in those early years I missed her terribly because the loss you feel as a teenager is so intense. Well, everything you feel as a teenager is so intense! And Jamie’s was the first life I ever grieved. When I went to college 10 months later, I measured all my new friendships by the benchmark of Jamie Brown (maybe I still do). And then as the years wore on I carried her death as an anchor to sink Christmas, because that was easier than dealing with all my old emotional wounds from my childhood. When I got married 14 years ago, I grieved again that Jamie was gone and could never be my Maid of Honor. And three months later, when my grandmother dropped dead of a heart attack in her kitchen and that grief unlocked the place where I had buried all of the terror and torment of sexual abuse, I asked God why he had taken one of my only witnesses, one of the only people who helped me survive those days during those days. (And it felt like some kind of karmic irony that I would be praying, since it was Jamie and her family that had taken me under the wing of faith all those years ago.)
And now? Now I wish Jamie could come visit me this Christmas. I wish she could meet my amazing daughter, especially since she had always wanted a daughter. I’m lucky she did get to meet my husband. I wish she could know me now, calmer, wiser, having healed so much pain. (And with better shoes.) I wish she could see me tap into the bravery that she helped me find. She always believed in my writing. She always believed in my voice. I think she would be so proud to see me speak out for survivors of sexual violence because she would know just how dark and haunted that journey has been.
When I first met Jamie her favorite song was “Sowing the Seeds of Love” by Tears for Fears. I have no doubt that is what our friendship did for me. When I met Jamie I was estranged from my father. I was being routinely sexually abused. And I lived with an alcoholic. When I met her, my dearest confidantes were the trees outside my bedroom window. I had no faith in people. People only leave. People only find new ways to hurt you. But my friendship with Jamie showed me that people can also love you and lift you up. And experiencing that kind of love helped me to eventually be willing to open up to other kinds of love — like the love I share with my husband and the love I feel as a mother.
I used to dread Dec. 19. But now I’ve made a kind of peace with it. It’s never going to be okay with me that she’s gone. Sure, I can’t get through the day without shedding a tear. But it’s like the poem says:
i carry your heart with me(i carry it inmy heart)i am never without it(anywherei go you go,my dear;and whatever is doneby only me is your doing,my darling)i fearno fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i wantno world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meantand whatever a sun will always sing is youhere is the deepest secret nobody knows(here is the root of the root and the bud of the budand the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which growshigher than soul can hope or mind can hide)and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars aparti carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)