I can’t shake this feeling so I am going to blog it out. Today is my friend Nichole’s 31st birthday. 10 years ago we celebrated her 21st birthday on January 28th 2000. It was a cold, snowy night. I remember that I had a horrible feeling in my gut. I couldn’t bail on a friend, especially on her 21st birthday. We went to a few bars, none of which were a blast. The anxiety I felt almost made me bail on the night a few times but I continued to push it down and party ahead. On the commute from one bar to another I called my then fiancé to tell him we were leaving one place and going to another. I had NEVER done this before. We got to our final location and I tried with all of my might to have fun. About 45 minutes after arriving I saw my fiancé making his way through the crowded bar with my best guy friend, John at his side. I knew something was terribly wrong. He would NEVER follow me to a bar on girl’s night. The look in John’s eyes confirmed my gut feeling. Chad (the ex) asked us all to step outside. This bar is in a plaza so when you leave the bar you are still in the plaza (sort of like a mall). It was me, my friend Nichole, our friend Meaghan and a girl we worked with. I don’t remember what I said but I know I knew something was not right and I told him to just come out with it. I will never forget his words, “Toni, Leigh is dead”. There was a horn blaring or a siren, something was keeping me from hearing. I made him repeat it over and over again. Each time he said it I watched as John’s face fell further and further. Meaghan had been a friend of Leigh’s since grade school. Nichole had known her since junior high. She was one of all of our very best friends.
I didn’t believe Chad. I just couldn’t accept this information. I told him I wanted to talk to her mom so he dialed the phone and I remember saying “please tell me this isn’t true”. I don’t remember all of her words but she told me that it was true, Leigh was gone. She and Leigh’s dad were already en route to Columbia where Leigh was away at school. She invited/asked me to come needing all of the support she could get. I remember taking Nichole home and making phone calls from her apartment. Meaghan’s husband, Jim, and Chad worked together and were good friends so the 4 of us piled into the car at 2 am and headed to Columbia in a blizzard. I don’t know how long the drive was with the weather. I don’t think we talked. I remember the way the snow fell and visibility being low. There are times now that snow falls in that way and it takes me back instantly to that night. By the time we arrived in Columbia Leigh’s parents had left the hospital and were on their way to her apartment. We met them there. The doors and windows were covered in Leigh’s bubbly handwriting wishing her roommate a happy 21st birthday. The whole house was decorated for the big day, just as Leigh would have done, all out. Her room looked like a bomb had gone off, just like her room at home.
I remember walking in and seeing a pillow behind the headboard and a boa tied to the post and thinking ‘I can’t let her mother see this’. So I nonchalantly walked over to pull it down and Leigh’s mom says “I saw it already, that’s my girl”. We were all in such shock, standing there discussing what she should be buried in. I will never forget her mom walking into her closet, pulling on her robe and just burying her face in it to smell her. We found our friend Julie’s birthday present wrapped and ready to go, which was very unlike Leigh. There were so many memories scattered across the floor of that room I just couldn’t concentrate. We decided on burying her in her overalls, her absolute favorite thing to wear. It was so hard to do but looking back I cannot imagine things being any other way.
I don’t remember the ride home…or the next 3 days. I know John came to sit with me the next day while Chad worked. He told me later that I didn’t say a word for the entire 9 hours he sat with me. I didn’t cry. I just stared into space, no TV and no radio; just silence. I remember on day 2 I got flowers from my best friend in Colorado. She was torn she could not be with me. Because Leigh and I had lived together and were very good friends, all of my friends knew her. The flowers had a pink tool bow (Leigh loved tool) and I think that was my very first good cry. I went to meet the minister at Leigh’s parent’s house as requested. I lived in that house, with her. It was hard to go back. It was hard to talk about who and what Leigh was in life knowing I would have to go on without her. It was even harder to go through pictures and make poster boards for the funeral. There were so many memories there.
I am honestly not sure how I made it through all of this. I think that life gives you the memory of what you need to get through it but takes that which would kill you. Leigh’s funeral was my first time as a pall bearer. Hopefully it is my last. Her funeral was truly a celebration of her life. Her mom put down the rug from her bedroom in front of the casket. Her comforter from home surrounded her. There were lava lamps, photos and even her stereo and cd’s in the back room for everyone to place their favorite music in her memory. I don’t know why but I remember her boobs looked huge and her mom and I discussing it as others were waiting to pay their respects. (Sometimes you have to find something to laugh about and Leigh would have loved how large her breasts looked, even in death) I remember her strong military brother saluting her casket as he broke down crying. I remember Joanne choking out the eulogy I could not speak at the time. I remember her sorority sisters lining the walk and singing their sorority song as her casket was carried by. I remember my dad being so affected that he could not come to the wake and missing the funeral. I was devastated. And then the church doors opened and he was standing outside by himself waiting at her gravesite. I remember my 6 foot + giant of a friend almost crumbling with grief as he carried our girl to her final spot. I remember kissing her casket at the end of the service and feeling like Leigh was standing right beside me letting me know she was not in there.
The thing I remember most about the funeral: Leigh’s mom embracing the boy who was driving the car, in front of all of us, and telling him it was not his fault. He was with his parents. His face was still cut and bruised. He looked over when the impact hit Leigh’s side of the car and was blinded in his right eye by glass shards. He had horrible guilt. I remember her telling him that this was just Leigh’s time to go. God had called her home, she had a greater purpose with him and he couldn’t let guilt take him over. I was amazed then and I am still amazed today that a grieving mother could handle things as well as she did. How many people could step back and celebrate their daughter’s life and legacy in such a way so soon after her death? I KNOW Leigh’s mom’s reaction helped me to let it go as well. She was and still is today a huge source of inspiration on who and what I want to be when I grow up.
Most of the time I can look back on Leigh and remember her life, her amazing spirit and the goodness and love she brought to my life. I don’t’ know if it is Nichole’s birthday celebration tonight, the predicted snow or the 10 year anniversary of her death looming in 3 days but today feels like the day I lost her all over again. It is cutting my gut and I can’t breathe. I promise to do a tribute and a much more positive post for Leigh in the coming days.