Sunday, May 1, 2011

It's Not my Party and I'll Cry if I Want To

At about 7:45 yesterday evening, we pulled up in front of a bar in a Dallas neighborhood I haven’t been to in years. We snagged a choice parking meter right outside the doors, a lucky break with another rain shower threatening, and seized the chance to unload all of our spare change. A quick check in the mirror told me my lip gloss was still in place and my bangs were losing their battle against the humidity. I stepped out, smoothed my dress and took my precious cargo out of the backseat. Armed with two large and unwieldy picture frames, an inner monologue of pep talks and a good friend by my side, I made my way into the reunion. Stepping into the cool, dry air I simultaneously wanted to be no place else and anywhere but there. Because it was not my 15 year reunion. It was not my party. This class belonged to my sister, Wendy. And the only reason I was there last night is because she’s gone.

About a week ago, I was touched to receive an invitation to attend Wendy’s reunion, and even more moved by the effusive response to my acceptance. A reaction that was multiplied tenfold that night. The hellos, the hugs and the “thank you so much for coming’s” kept, well, coming. I started to realize that my presence there meant as much to her classmates as it did to me. If not even more. Which made me think about it from their perspective. Wendy and I went to a small, private girl’s school. A hard school, the kind that either chews you up or spits you out as an Ivy leaguer. You don’t just get a degree from Hockaday, you fight for it, earn it. The girls in your class are your teammates, your allies and your strongest survival asset. My graduating class totaled 84 and I think hers wasn’t much larger. And they had lost one of their own. It’s a big hole in a class that small. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

Throughout the course of the night, and fortified by more than a few glasses of wine, I listened to stories about Wendy, caught up with bright, successful women who I had last seen when they were just girls and watched as her class raised almost $1000 in a raffle to win one of two signed reprints of Wendy’s artwork. Money that will be going to our school, to help promising art students pay for supplies. And then a moment came in the evening, sometime after my early bout of nervousness and discomfort and before to the effects of the wine had rendered me comfortably numb, when I found myself alone, sitting on a barstool, watching the class of 1996 swirl around me, chatter and laughter drifting over the music. In that standstill I suddenly tried to imagine what the scene around me would look like if Wendy was there. I pictured her, head thrown back in laughter, arms gesturing freely as she described her latest adventure. Ever the social butterfly, I could see her making her way from group to group, hugging and kissing with gusto. Later, when the band went on, she would dance with wild abandon, even though if the music was terrible.

And then I desperately wanted to see her at 33. I wanted to know who she was, what she had become. Just like I was seeing with the rest of her class. But I couldn’t, because in my head, she is always 22. She will always be 22.

It wasn’t until today that I realized that Wendy never made it to any of her class reunions. She was killed in the fall of 2000 and her first reunion would have marked five years in the Spring of 2001. She was never there to mark these passages of time with her class, gatherings that until today, I took a little for granted. Reunions are kind of a context for where we’ve come from, who we are now and where we are headed. Like mile markers or checkpoints. I suppose that might not be the case in a bigger school, or one that isn’t fraught with the same level of stress and academic challenge. But for anyone who went to Hockaday, those years are a defining piece of our personal history. An experience only shared by those who survived it next to us. And our lives are still marked today by relationships that started in the trenches with those girls around us.

So, not for the first time, and probably not for the last, I willingly took her place last night. Did my best to walk in my sister’s shoes even though they are too big for me to ever fill. Did my best to help her be at her reunion with the rest of her class. For her. For them. For me. I laughed with her friends, some of whom have become dear friend of mine, knocked back more than my fair share from the bar and partied like it was 1996. And then, today, I cried.