Just after the holidays, a package arrives.
It's postmarked from Chicago and has the cheerful, curly printing of my good friend Shelley.
Inside is an assortment of little treasures: a card with a dove of clouds, magnets that say "Yay! Chicago" and "Yay! Bacon," and a wooden bird that fits on the side of a flower pot.
There's also a Buddha Board -- a magic slate of sorts -- on which you paint water and then watch as your design slowly evaporates into peaceful oblivion. On the box, it says "Master the Art of Letting Go."
Like all Shelley's packages, this one is full of joy, jokes, and the long-lasting bond of our friendship. We see each other maybe once a year, but we are still as close as ever.
I arrange the presents into a small pile with a post-it note on top. The note says, "Call Shelley."
Then things get busy. I don't call. I don't e-mail. I don't text. I promise myself I will find a moment soon. But the pile sits there for more than a week.
And then it is too late.
I am buying a plane ticket on a moment's notice.
This is not like me at all. As an amputee, I've surrendered to the complexity of travel. I do not just hop on a plane.
But now, I book a flight, hotel, and rental car in less than 10 minutes. I do it without considering crutches or legs or shower chairs.
Shelley has passed away.
The news is sudden and unexpected. Sad and unjust. More tragic than words can explain.
I hop on a plane.
It's Shelley who usually hops on a plane.
In the bleak winter of 2010, she flew in from Chicago the day after my hospital discharge. I was curled up on my parents' couch, doubled over with abdominal pain. Suddenly the garage door opened, and a burst of sunshine -- a best friend from Chicago -- walked in!
"I wanted to celebrate New Year's with you!" she said. It was New Year's Eve.
We did celebrate. The pain subsided. I took tentative bites of pizza. I hobbled around on my new crutches. We watched the ball drop as the year flipped over to 2011. We swore it would be better than 2010.
thousandth mile too. Shelley never missed a milestone!
When she couldn't be there in person, Shelley sent packages and cards.
Her "paper hug" hung on my hospital wall. Her battery-operated candles lit up my room. Her Chicago socks marked a path to my recovery.
with Shelley's candles!
"It's from Shelley!" I said. "I have to open it now!"
The nurses stopped my gurney mid-roll. They gave me scissors to open the box. We learned early on that a gift from Shelley always contained exactly the support I needed.
When I finally started walking again, Shelley sent this photo of her own feet, stepping out in Chicago. Even long distance, she found a way to pack joy into the littlest moments.
Mile Marker 2448:
My plane lands in Chicago.
I hitch a wheelchair ride through 2 terminals to meet up with my friend Linda, who arrives a half-hour later from Omaha.
That evening, we meet up with friends Wendy and Jennie. We telephone Alexa, who's still in Washington, D.C. Elaine flies in around midnight.
|We miss our 4th Musketeer|
Over the next 2 days, I manage 2 showers in 2 different hotels. I pack and repack. I eat on the fly. I stay up late and get up early. My little leg is as moody as ever. My socket is too tight, then too loose. It itches and rubs and burns.
|Elaine, Linda, and I toast Shelley|
at one of her favorites,
It's about Shelley, who faced plenty of obstacles, but always rolled with them.
On this trip, I conjure up her strength, courage, and humor. I borrow a bit of them for myself.
And like Shelley, I try to live in the moment.
The funeral home is filled with friends and family.
On a side table sits a stuffed Super Grover guarding a basket of biking socks shaped like roses.
Shelley's friend Dawn sports a Bert sweatshirt, celebrating Shelley's love for the Muppets. Another friend wears a Kermit pin. I wear a scarf with bicycles. And there's a whole contingency of cycling friends wearing rainbow-colored "Shagadelic" jerseys.
|There's even a dorm reunion|
We are like a collage of "Shelley moments." We smile and share stories. We laugh gently. And we keep echoing the same words: I can't believe she's gone.
It is inconceivable to lose someone so brimming with life.
I can still smell her banana chocolate chip muffins baking in the oven before every final exam.
We've been friends for more than 20 years. I could fill a thousand blog posts with our moments.
Still, they're not enough.
When I finally head home, one memory resonates more than any other.
Shelley turned broken bike helmets into garden planters.
Even in the toughest moments, she always rode on the sunny side of the street. She cheered for garlic shoots that pushed up through the snowy soil. She celebrated when the Polar Vortex finally reached the single digits. And she never missed a chance to help others do the same.
Shelley made the most of each moment.
She was an organ donor too. And so, when all hope faded, her family spent many more hours at the hospital to make sure her wishes could be fulfilled. In the end, Shelley passed on her gift of life to multiple people in the surrounding states.
Her heart -- I've heard -- lives on in Chicago.
I've been back from Chicago for one week and 15 miles so far.
The magnets from Shelley's package are hanging on my fridge. The wooden bird perches on a plant in my bedroom. Her dove card is displayed on my kitchen counter.
I still haven't opened the Buddha Board. I don't think I'm ready to "Master the Art of Letting Go."
Yet these last few miles, I've found unusual comfort in each moment.
I take pleasure in dry sidewalks before the snow falls. I wander in and out of stores, shopping for friends and family. I enjoy my work with students. I make time to stop for coffee. I text friends while I'm thinking of it, before the moment passes me by.
Plus, my Christmas Cactus is in bloom. It hasn't had a single bud in years, but now a huge pink flower is opening. I can only imagine this is Shelley's doing.
On my way to the Jefferson garden this week, I pass a sign on the wall of a church:
I just wish we had more of them.
Thank you Shell, for bringing your love, light, and laughter into my life. For riding with me through the fun times and the most challenging. You are a true best friend, and I'll miss you everyday.
To see and hear some of our moments, click here for a video.