The thirteenth of July, will always be a day of sobering sentimentality. A day for remembering and a day for celebrating; celebrating life and how only the good die young. Not good, as in, less than great or just a bit above average, but good, as in, good-hearted, a perfectly gentle and loving soul, and an exceptionally wonderful human being. It is always those who are truly good people that lose their lives way too young, way too tragically.
July 13, 1995.
My family was participating in a neighborhood garage sale, along with our neighbors across the street and many others on our block. We did this every year, without fail, and I dreaded having to work hard during my summer vacation from school. It seemed like everyone else I knew was enjoying lazy, hazy days at the community pool, the beaches, or out on their boats at Strawberry Island. If they weren’t off on a family vacation of some sort. It was fairly common for families in our area to travel out of the metro-Detroit suburbs, to places with more woods and fields, more wild animals and unfamiliar plants, smaller, more private, in-land lakes, and way less people, just to get in touch with nature and revel in the good life with their loved ones. Michigan, The Great Lakes state, is a splendid place for camping, boating, and all kinds of outdoor recreation. This was the summer before seventh grade and I was only eleven years old, then.
My classmate, my friend, my childhood wish-I-could-be-exactly-like-her idol, Leia, was off on a camping adventure at a popular recreation lake in the middle of lower Michigan, Higgins Lake, only a couplefew hours, or so, from our quaint little city on the outskirts of Detroit. I was at home, throwing hissy fits over everything my parents asked of me. Having to lug everything out from the basement and garage that my parents deemed sellable, washing it all and setting it out for display, and being made to sit in the roasting sun and watch the junk no one would ever buy, just so my parents could sit in the house drinking beer, under the pretense that they needed to locate and price more items for sale they forgot about, infuriated me. All I wanted was to go have fun with the friends who weren’t off having better fun, like Leia, who was most likely having a grand ole’ time out on the water with her family’s pontoon boat. I made sure my mom and dad knew how miserable I was stuck at home when we could be off somewhere, too, like every entitled, bratty tween would do.
Sometime around two in the afternoon, the air suddenly changed around me. Through the thick, smothering humidity of the sweltering heat, my body started to feel the charge of electricity building up all around. My skin tingled sharply, causing my hair to stand on end, goosebumps to prickle across my sunburned skin, and the chills to go racing down my spine. My instincts warned that something was wrong. Fight or flight reactions started flooding my brain, and that’s when I noticed the darkness. Not even a half mile towards the west, was a blanket of darkness moving swiftly towards us across the skyline all the way to the horizon. I felt a surge bolt through my skin just as lightening flashed somewhere in the depths of the cloud mass, too thick to even thunder.
Quickly, I scrambled to push the few tables I had set outside of the garage, into it, and slammed the door shut. Instinct sent me running through my yard and across the street to the neighbor who had set up in her abnormally large front yard, instead of her garage. My stepmom was already there and we worked with fury to tarp the items to large to move easily and gather what we could race off to the safety of cover. Five minutes in, the darkness was over us and the heavens poured by the gallons, as if every single, last, angel had gathered and were sobbing profusely over our city. Despite helping to save the day for my neighbor’s and my own family’s belongings, that pit inside my soul wouldn’t settle, wouldn’t let go of it’s charge. It wouldn’t stop nagging at me that something was terribly, horribly wrong.
It wasn’t even, but, two hours later, when my bestest friend, and next-door neighbor, and I were sitting around in my bedroom doing whatever it is tween girls do together, that I received the answer to the nagging at my conscious. The reason for feeling the way I still did. The storm hadn’t hit just our little area in our great big, huge, state. The storm hit across all of lower-middle Michigan as it passed from Wisconsin and Illinois into Canada and New York. It passed over Higgins Lake. Leia and her family were out on the lake when it rolled in and they didn’t make it back to shore on time. As the storm rocked and rolled the flimsy vessel, Leia panicked and put on a second life jacket. The pontoon soon flipped. Everyone got out from under it, except Leia. The fabric loop that makes it possible to be hooked by a special tool and pulled out of the water on the bottom life jacket got caught on something when they flipped. She had the top jacket unbuttoned and all but one button left on the bottom life preserver, when she ran out of air. Her dad dived to find her three times before he could get to her and swim her to shore where medics had already been called. It was all too late. Leia became a guardian angel this day, forever and always, watching over us from above.
Eleven years old is really young in the grand scheme of life. There’s still a touch of childhood innocence left blanketing their perspectives of the world and life. Still a naive sense about them where they believe everything is always going to be okay. Work out okay. Turn out okay. Especially, when they live in an area without any obvious signs of poverty, homelessness, crime, or corruption. I was growing up in one of those bedroom communities, composed of middle class, upper middle class, and, even a few handfuls of wealthy citizens, located on the very polluted Lake St. Clair that lies between Lake Michigan and the Detroit River. (originally considered too small to be considered one of the Great Lakes, it wasn’t protected by the same conservation laws and both Michigan and Canadian corporations took plenty advantage of it until the damage was irreversible.) None of my classmates and I had ever had anything of magnitude happen in our lives. No one knew how cruel or enigmatic life can be on its best of days. We all, just sorta, lived within this bubble of simplicity, oblivious to the truths we were taught about in our social studies and geography lessons.
Leia’s death rocked our school community and shook the very framework of our social system, bringing us closer together than ever before. Over five hundred qq wepeople, most of them students, crowded into a tiny Lutheran church that’s held roughly sixty people at most, during it’s regular worship services, beyond the point of standing room only. It all seemed so unfair, so callous, so chimerical at the time. No one understood how someone, just shy of turning twelve, with her life barely even started, who did so much good and held so much talent, who was strikingly beautiful, could be chosen for such a tragic ending. Why would such a shining star of a personality have to die? She was a local beauty queen, for Christ’s sake! Little Miss St. Clair Shores. An extremely talented dancer, who outshined everyone else she ever took the stage with, Leia had a lot going for her that would have taken her on an exciting course, possibly even a career. Despite possessing such coveted qualities, which would make the average person come across as conceited and vain, she was humble and demure, a gentle soul full of love for life. She gave back to her community through volunteer work. She laughed. A lot! I don’t recall a moment where she wasn’t smiling. This girl was an angel here on Earth, in a time where evil was spreading, and still is, like wildfire. What great travesty it was to lose her so mercilessly.
July 13, 2015
As I’m out walking my dog, watching storms get ready to roll in from a distance, much farther, but still familiar, to that of twenty years ago, my thoughts wander upon the anniversary of Leia’s death. Though, I’ve always taken a moment to celebrate her life and passing, on the anniversary of each with dedication, I don’t think I ever really sorted through the meaning of it all. As tweens, it was an inconceivable, unpredictable, traumatic scar to a previously perfect verisimilitude of immature naivety. We were thrown in front of counselors the Monday after her funeral, lined in a row barely five feet apart from each other, with small card tables and the typical hard metal folding chairs to match, offering no privacy to anyone who was in the gym with its echoing acoustics. What kid wants to talk about feelings where everyone can hear? My parents, like many other of my classmates’ parents, didn’t see what problems could even be, because Leia wasn’t everyone’s bestest friend of all time. She was everyone’s friend, though. We all grieved unknowingly, unversed in this new experience none of us asked for.
The day Leia died, not only an angel was born, so was a writer; a poet; a therapist of words. Many teachers, a few doctors, several therapists, the air force, marines, army, and coast guard alike, fireman, police, physical therapists, nurses, public relations, childcare, hair dressers, and health, band/instrument, flying, and special education instructors, and advocates for nursing homes. I see now, how Leia’s death inspired each and every one of us to live our lives with the respect, the love, and the compassion for humanity as she once did so effortlessly, like freshly laundered sheets blowing in the wind as they dry on the line, though she was no where near being grown, yet.
In her death, a bond unique to those who grew up along side of her, was forged ambiguously under the sheath of grief and devastation we carried over our hearts. It was something we couldn’t recognize, but it was certainly present, and that bond held us together in her memory, allowing a piece of her extraordinary spirit live on in each of us who wept for her. While every other class of students witnesses bullying, betrayal, and cliques so tight that they snap back at you, like an overstretched rubber band, just for looking their way, my class was totally different. Sure, we weren’t all copycat versions of one another, and, we still had our groups, but we were completely accepting of one another and the differences between our styles, personalities, appearances, and all the jazz kids get worked up about, typically. We didn’t tease one another unfairly, or see who could spread damming rumors the fastest. We minded our own business and were genuinely friendly with everyone, regardless of who was friends with who. I never saw anything rude or belittling written on bathroom stalls, there weren’t any fights between the boys, there wasn’t any rivalries that led to boundary crossing practical jokes.
Granted, our class size, our school system, was smaller than average. Only 112 in my graduating class (class of 2001, baaay-beey!). Still, though, every class has it’s issues, regardless of size, and we did, too, that first year of sixth grade as we all came together from our different elementary schools. We had the girls beginning to do the clique thing, centered around their worshipping of Leia for her natural beauty, and we had the tough boys who bullied some of the nerdier kids. Then we all went into seventh grade, still in mourning from the tragedy of our summer vacation, and everyone just got along amicably, and it stayed that way through our graduation from twelfth grade, when we finally finished the race of growing up. Twenty years of pondering this seeming coincidence, reflecting back on this calendar day year after year, and I can only resolute that it was Leia’s spirit whom spread the seeds which rooted us together, as she grew with us, in what’s ordinarily a pretty rough phase of life for any other teenager. Like any other seed that takes root, a plant shall grow, and eventually, it must bloom. Bloom we did, that day at graduation. We each choose a path in life, or rather, the piece of Leia’s spirit led our hearts to choose, that encompassed her passion for life and caring for her fellow mankind. It’s amazing, almost mind-blowing, I think as this revelation sinks in, that we all found our own way to live life in her honor.
For me, her spirit unlocked my passion to write- to share my heart with others so that they never feel alone, if they have ever felt that way, too. To help others understand what I’m trying to communicate and take something out of it for themselves so they can better understand. To heal myself of wounds and show others they can, as well. Without the fateful sorrow which consumed me after Leia passed away, I wouldn’t have needed an outlet for all the emotions paralyzing my mind and engrossing my thoughts, never picking up pen and notebook. Never discovering what she was destined to help me find, just like everyone else, because that’s just what true angels do. They give selflessly to help others, sometimes when they don’t even know they need the helping.
Lightening flashes, closer now, but still far enough that I feel safe continuing on with the dog. Tears roll down my cheeks, but I’m oblivious to it, lost in my thoughts of Leia. For so long, I could never understand, never find a good enough reason for the death of someone so perfectly angelical. None of us could. Too young and immature when it happened, our perception of it all held her loss as meaningless, which never sat right with me. I can see now how much beauty came from her departure, from our overcoming grief for that act of heavenly greed. The Good are only gifted such a short time here on this earth, because they are too angelic to stay and be tainted by the impurities of the world. Their goodness is worth too much to be limited by earthly limitations, they were born to be the angels who’s spirits live on piece by piece within each of those graced with their evanescence in life.
As I make my way back to my house, I know just what to do on this bittersweet, stormy, July day, to honor my friend. Thunder crashes and the sky lights up dramatically from the storm, just a mile out now. I’m going to use the gift I found in the poetry, spun like magic from the darkest, depths of my melancholic despondency to console myself after Leia’s passing to eternal life, to tell her story. To show others, who may not be able to see through their own darkened clouds in a time of lamenting despair, that beauty can rise from the ashes, a new tomorrow awaits within the shattered pieces of what once was, and, there is purpose, greater than we perceive, in every travesty and tribulation we face.
Leia did not die in vain. She proved, with no contest, to be too good for this life on earth, too good to for mortality. Everything happens for a reason, they say, and the reason, I now understand. Her elegance, grace, and charm were too angelic to waste on a world who wouldn’t appreciate her value and she is right where she always belonged… Watching over all of us from heaven as her spirit dances on in our hearts, spreading her love and compassion a hundred times over. For, it is only The Good who die young.
In Loving Memory:
Leia Ashley McDoniel 9/22/83 – 7/13/95
***Today’s post is a writing challenge. This is how it works: participating bloggers picked 4 – 6 words or short phrases for someone else to craft into a post. All words must be used at least once and all the posts will be unique as each writer has received their own set of words. That’s the challenge, here’s a fun twist; no one who’s participating knows who got their words and in what direction the writer will take them. Until now. You’ll find links to the other blogs featuring this challenge below. Check them all out, see what words they got and how they used them.
I’m using: sheets, finish, fastest, contest, and calendar.
They were submitted by:
Baking In A Tornado http://www.BakingInATornado.com
Links to the other “Use Your Words” posts:
http://www.BakingInATornado.com Baking In A Tornado
http://spatulasonparade.blogspot.com/Spatulas on Parade
http://themomisodes.com The Momisodes
http://berghamchronicles.blogspot.com The Bergham’s Life Chronicles
http://www.southernbellecharm.com Southern Belle Charm
Dinosaur Superhero Mommy
Confessions of a part-time working mom
http://www.someoneelsesgenius.com Someone Else’s Genius
http://batteredhope.blogspot.com Never Ever Give Up Hope
Sparkly Poetic Weirdo
http://www.thediaryofanalzheimerscaregiver.com The Diary of an Alzheimer’s Caregiver
http://www.angrivatedmom.wordpress.com The Angrivated Mom
By: Kristina Hammer, aka, The Angrivated Mom