Somersaults & Other Life Lessons

August 2, 2015 No Comments »
Somersaults & Other Life Lessons

By Courtney M. Brown

My first memory of Bethany is the two of us standing, hands on hips, chin to forehead, in the middle of her front hallway yelling at each other as loudly as we could manage. I was chin and she was forehead, so I had the advantage of looking down at her while we yelled. 

My superiority of height implied a superiority of reason, which I coupled with the unshakable logic of might. I was also older and the guest at her house, which naturally entitled me to have my way in any subjective matter. She may have taken issue with my being “bossy” which, if true, would certainly have gone against the guest code of conduct, but my fault was obviously arguable. We were 4 years old, and these were the rules of engagement. 

Clearly Bethany was my best friend. 

Leaf Piles, Swing Sets, & Bad Advice

It was naturally inevitable that we would bicker, and we fought like pirates about whether to play outside or in, on the swing or the seesaw, with her big sister’s off-limits toys or the bouncy ball. But under the arguing, the tattling, and the stuck-out tongues remained the comfortable knowledge that we would forgive each other (or, more likely, that she would forgive me—I really was quite bossy) and forget about both swing and seesaw and work on perfecting our somersaults instead.

Bethany’s mother bravely watched over us while my parents were at work, and our days were filled jumping into leaf piles taller than we were, swinging in the backyard higher and higher until the swing set legs threatened to come fully out of the ground, and drifting into afternoon naps to the hum of a box fan in the window. 

Once a bee landed on my hand and neither of us knew what to do. Bethany was terrified that I would get stung, and I was not less concerned about that possibility. Taking her anxious advice, I stood still as a statue (she did too—for support) until it finally flew away. It was a close call, and we both felt how narrowly we had avoided disaster. 

Another time I took her advice and pencil-sharpened my finger. I learned that, though her counsel was not always sound, her friendship was, and she ran helpfully screaming through the house to find her mother while I and my bleeding finger dripped inconsolably down the stairs after her. 

During church we sat together and helped each other trace our hands on bulletins and try new tunes for the hymns. We played tag on the church grounds after services and caught lightning bugs on Wednesday nights. 

Distance & Devotion

When I was 9 years old, my family moved away, but within days of arriving at my new address, I had a letter from Bethany. It was on fancy paper and sealed with a sparkly sticker—indisputable evidence of real devotion. For a while our letters travelled with a frequency that could probably best be attributed to complementary desires to receive mail, since we had nothing of much importance to say. But time gets filled with other things, and as we grew older, our letters grew fewer. Even so, she remained my best friend; ours was an abiding rather than momentary best friendship. When her letters did arrive, they were always the words of one who knew me best and loved me anyway. 

We were both away at college when Bethany’s doctors found a tumor on her spine. Even as kids she’d been smaller and more breakable than my rough-and-tumble self and had visited doctors for problems I’d never entirely grasped. But medicine then had been magical in its predisposition for the miraculous, and it was easy to have confidence in the immortality of youth. 

Bethany’s days became filled with surgeries, physical therapy, and new nurses and doctors. She left her dorm and slept in a hospital bed at home. Her body began to show the strain of steel and chemical invasions and she had to depend on a motorized wheelchair for mobility. She made sure it was purple—her favorite color. 

In the meantime I graduated from college and was living nearby again, so while Bethany was recovering in the hospital after another surgery, I went to see her for the first time in a long time. We both looked so different—so grown up—that it took a little while to get used to each other’s faces. I chatted with her mom, helped her tease her physical therapist, and marveled at how fast a wheelchair can motor along when its operator wants to be first to the coffee stand. Visiting at the hospital became a part of my routine for several weeks. 

Once Bethany was home again, we went out to the movies or to dinner. It might not have been a swing in the backyard, but it felt like old times. Over the months Bethany continued to improve, and my own bout with mono and the strain of working two jobs made it harder to see her as much. I let myself be persuaded by hope and time into believing again in youthful immortality. We talked and emailed, but then I heard that she wasn’t doing well. It was almost Christmas, and she’d just turned 22. I never saw her again. 

The Best Kind of Friend

At Bethany’s memorial service, I sat with old friends we had shared. We remembered, cried, promised to write, and went home, each of us heavy with our own Bethany-shaped grief. I thought about how happy she’d always been to see me, what a perfect best friend she’d been. I tried to come to terms with how ashamed I was that I had gotten too busy to take time for her.

I am fortunate not to have many genuine regrets in my life so far. But there are a few moments I look back on with guilt and desperately long to change. The last months of Bethany’s life top that list. I think often of my friend, and I miss her. I wish I’d seen her more often. I wish I’d told her how much like a sister she’d always been to me, even before I had a sister of my own. I wish I’d shared better and argued less. I wish I’d thanked her for being such a faithful friend. I wish I’d hugged her more. I wish. I wish.

But mine is not an infinite sorrow. Memories of shared innocence, gilt-edged by time and frequent recollection, blunt the sharpness of her absence. I try to wait patiently for the bittersweet remembrance to return to simply being sweet. Bethany accepted me without caveat or condition, with my many chips and dings, imperfect in every way. It was the perfect love that only a best friend can give. Even now she keeps me humble in my undeserved good fortune and reminds me when things are hard that I should behave and be kind. 

And someday I know I will see her again. When this world fades for me as it did too soon for her, I will find her and I will ask her to forgive me and my failings. I know she will because I know her. And as we turn a thousand perfect somersaults across Heaven, I will finally cross my greatest regret off my list.

Courtney Brown is an educator and freelance writer in Florida who still enjoys turning somersaults in the backyard.

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