Monday, September 12, 2005

Surreal Though

The devastation surrounding hurricane Katrina and the four year anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks has made me very contemplative lately concerning the meaning of life. As I have tried to reconcile all of this suffering with my understanding of the benevolent Creator, I have been thinking about death and it made me recall something from my recent past. I had an unnerving experience this past February, but I’m just now putting it into perspective how it affected me. I told a few of my friends and family how disquieted I was at the time, but I have finally decided to write about it now.

This past Christmas, I decided to make some personalized greeting cards to update all my friends that I had moved to rural New Hampshire and to spread some holiday cheer. The previous three years of surgical residency had been a blur, so it had been a while since I had really been able to enjoy the holidays. Plus, I figured that this would be a fun way to reconnect with all of the people that I had lost contact with over the last several years (assuming their mailing addresses were the same).
There were several friends in particular that I was hoping to reach, because many were just real good people. While many of the people we meet in life don’t impress us with their character or behavior, occasionally we come across someone who is full of love and energy. When I was in medical school, I met such a young woman who fits that description, but unfortunately after moving to Boston to start my residency we drifted apart, and I had not talked to her in well over a year.
Janella and I had little in common when we met, but I was attracted to her positive outlook on life and her service oriented approach to her career. At the time we met, Janella was teaching special education at Friendly High School, a predominantly black public school in Fort Washington, Maryland. She was also the faculty advisor/coach for the Friendly High School Step Team. Janella used to step in college as a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and she had found a way to use this experience to help young people at her high school build their self esteem and do something creative.
Janella’s service oriented values made me want to take time from my busy schedule, and come down to Fort Washington and participate in many of her selfless endeavors. As you may know, I own a pick-up truck, so at the annual Friendly High School homecoming parade, my truck would be decorated with signs and the step team would ride in the back through the parade while Janella and I rode in cab of the truck. The parade would pause, and the girls wound jump out and “break it down one time”, and then hop back on. It was really quite special.
I don’t think I once ever went to Janella’s house when she did not have at least one student visiting or often spending the night (and some of these young people had some very difficult situations at home). Just being around Janella had inspired me to be a better person, because she was so giving.

So you might want to know, “why did you drift apart from such a wonderful person, Chad?” To be honest, I cannot blame it completely on residency or my schedule. After all, I have managed to stay in touch with several other friends from medical school and have even been back to Maryland several times for weddings and to see other friends. I have to admit that I lost touch with Janella partly by my own doing. I can hardly remember all of the details, but I do remember her drawing closer than I was comfortable with at the time, and then I pulled back a little…just enough to weaken our friendship so as to create that distance that does not let a person “inside”. I’m not sure what I was scared of, but Janella sensed my hesitation, and being the sensitive person that she was, relented in her efforts to close that distance. Of course, when I moved to New England, it did not take long for our telephone conversations to become rare and then absent.

Anyway, I felt particularly bad about losing contact with such a good person, and I felt hopeful to hear from Janella as I addressed her Christmas card this past December and dropped it in the mail box along with the other cards I sent out. Sure enough, I started getting emails and phone calls from people who I had not spoken to in years, but I did not hear from Janella.

I celebrated the new year (2005) uneventfully, and as the holiday season became a distant memory, I forgot about the cards that I had sent out. Then one day after work in mid February, I came home on a dark and snowy evening (the days are so short here in the winter). I picked up my mail off the floor behind my mail slot and was curious to find an envelope addressed to me by hand with a name on it that I did not recognize immediately. I walked into my kitchen to put down my bag, and looked at the mystery letter. I don’t know about you, but I’m usually excited to get mail that is not a bill or junk so I opened it first.
Well, I was shocked at the envelope’s contents. It was a letter from Janella’s mother, who had written to inform me that Janella had been killed in a car accident the previous year. I can hardly describe the feeling that came over me as I read the letter. This was not the first time I have ever gotten news of death, but the effect of hearing about someone’s untimely passing is always profound for me. There is this surreal moment when the news seems to take me out of my body, and nothing seems real at first. Time seems to slow down, as my mind tries to process the information, but I feel like I’m in a vivid dream. My senses become distorted momentarily as some sounds like voices become inaudible, but other imperceptible sounds like falling snow seems to be amplified. People look transparent, and even the ground does not appear solid, but maybe some viscous fluid that is barely supporting me. With this tragic news of Janella’s death, my dreamlike state was augmented because I was reading about it in on a cold piece of paper. I felt like…if I stuff this letter back into the envelope, then she won’t really be dead…I will wake up. The whole scenario became more surreal as I tried to wrap my mind around the loss of my friend, and began to feel mournful and then felt guilty. She had been dead 8 months, and I was just finding out. A real friend would not have been so distant as to not even notice someone they cared about leave this Earth. I felt like I had no right to mourn or feel pain, because I had not truly appreciated Janella while she had been alive. I felt ashamed of myself for letting someone so special drift out of my life. I know it sounds like nonsense to say this but I felt like my shortcomings as a friend had contributed to her death somehow. I know in my mind that these were illogical conclusions, and that I had no reason to be guilty. But emotions are what they are, and my feelings were of remorse.

As is always the case, a tincture of time was needed for me to come to grips with Janella’s passing and let go of that guilt. I have forgiven myself, but I have not forgotten the lesson that Janella’s friendship and her untimely death have taught me. How many times do you hear clichés regarding friendship? “Tomorrow is not promised.” “Don’t wait until your loved ones are dead to give them flowers”. The loss of my friend has left me a little more sensitive to these sayings. I believe them now, and I hope I’m not hard-headed enough to forget to appreciate my friends and family while I have them. It took the strangest experience for me to realize how precious friendships with truly beautiful people are.

I re-read the letter that Mrs. Moore sent me today. Janella had been driving to Friendly High School graduation when the car accident occurred. She died shortly after arrival to the hospital. It’s ironic to me that Janella died on her way to the graduation ceremony for “her kids”. Even on her way out of this Earth, she was demonstrating her commitment to these kids. The school started a scholarship fund in her memory. Apparently, her funeral was attended by hundreds including many students, co-workers, sorors, and friends who could not believe that one whose light burned so bright was now extinguished and called home.
It’s still unsettling when I think about it now. She was gone for months, but in my mind she was only an email or a phone call away…whenever I got around to it. If I had never mailed that Christmas card, I’d probably still be in ignorant peace right now, but I did, and I learned, and I hurt. Now I’m left with this hollow feeling like something is palpably missing from my existence. It’s still surreal when I think about us going to church or chaperoning her kids or just hanging in DC. Can she really be gone? Can someone slip away so quietly?
I know she is gone, but I thank God that I got to know her. And I thank God that I still have so many friends and family to cherish. Lord, help me to never forget to appreciate the people in my life who love me, especially those who love me unconditionally. And Lord…help me to never forget Janella, the friend that I lost before I learned that lesson.

Rest in Peace Janella.
I miss you.

"Death came very easily to her. She had lived such an innocent and loving life of service to others and held such a simple faith, that she had no fears at all and did not seem to mind very much."
~Winston Churchill


At Mon Sep 12, 06:55:00 PM, Blogger MIZPOWDERPINK said...

I came across your blog by checking out the blogs of people who like Donny Hathaway. I was just passing through. I began to read and could not stop. This post has really touched me. I'm so sorry to hear about your friend. She sounds like a really beautiful person. Even though you kinda pulled away, I still think you were a good friend. Using your truck in the generous of you. Don't be so hard on yourself.

I'm a little upset with my mom right now, I have every right to be, and have not spoke to her in about 3 weeks. She has called me twice and I have not returned her calls. Now she has settled on sending me email forwards. I was hell bent on not calling and have already made plans for the holidays that don't include going to her house. After reading your post, I think I might give her a call.


At Wed Sep 14, 02:38:00 AM, Blogger Mr. Wilson said...

I remember when you originally told me about receiving that letter...I don't know why, but I figured that your career had given you some kind of perspective on death that would make it easier for you to process someone's dying. i see that it doesn't get easier to process emotional loss no matter how much you are exposed to other people dealing with their own grief...i guess if anything you probably know that there is no proper reaction to death.

anyway, i thought i would tell you that i love you even though i say it all the time. you never can really say it enough.

At Wed Sep 14, 08:03:00 PM, Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

Thanks a lot for making me cry -- at work! :-)

That was beautiful. I had a similar loss in high school and it still impacts who I am to this day. Death is a reminder that each day we live is special, precious and should not be taken for granted.

At Fri Sep 16, 01:17:00 AM, Blogger chase said...

It's rough, and even rougher when you find out so long after the fact. Holding onto the guilt doesnt do you any good, just appreciate what you have, when you can, cause you're still only human.

At Sun Oct 02, 11:09:00 PM, Blogger Reina Proverbial said...

You did a lot of thinking in NY and as I read and reflect on your entries (especially this one), I realize you have much more on your mind than you often share. The healing you search for will come as you continue to release these thoughts and emotions. Try the spirit by the spirit and know that you have friends and family around who care about you, who can appreciate your vulnerabilities, and who want to help you manage them. I love you and love never fails.

At Mon Oct 10, 01:10:00 PM, Anonymous Still learning said...

I have to say that i found my self emotional and even teary while reading this entery. Through it I saw i side of you i had never accountered (although i Knew it know that emotional side). The reason I was so touched was not because i knew Jannela personally, but because her death reminded me of the fragility of life. As all these barried emotions came affloat, i realized that it is my emotional ematurity, fear and laziness that has caused me to ambush so many relationships. I pray that through your loss God will give me the wisdom to appreciate the family and friends He blessed me with. So, i will like to thank both you and Jannella for teaching me this lesson.

At Tue Oct 18, 03:47:00 PM, Blogger luvrofmysoul said...

Beautifully expressed. In this thing called life we often take for granted those who have touched us deeply. Thank you for sharing this most tender life experience with me....much peace.

At Sat Jan 12, 06:19:00 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

Hi sir, I would like to start off by saying, "She was a gife from god"! I knew Ms. Moore and she helped me in so many ways that I couldn't even being to say. I had Ms. Moore as a teach and I was on the Step Team 00-02. She help me get in to College in ATL and now I am happy to say that I have A.S in Computer Networking! When ever I was around her I felt the love from her and that smile that she gives lights up the room. I felt she was part of my family and I was apart of her's. I will miss her as well!

Thank you!

At Wed May 28, 04:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Watz up Chad,
I came across ur blog while I was @ work bored on my sidekick, on just goggling people. When I decided to goggle my vice principle from high school. I was one of Ms. Moores "kids". I was with her ever since they made her our vice principle for our class ('04). Me and Ms. Moore and I had numerous of run ins, some good, a lot bad when we first meet. She use to pull me to the side and talk to me and tell me that I need to stay outta trouble. But being the hard headed person that I was I never listen, but she never gave up, she always preached the same message in my ear no matter of she knew I was listning or not. Well as the years went on and I became a senior, hewr meassage started to get thru in my head and I calmed daown from running the streets and doing a lot of things I had no buisness doing. She was such a inspiration to me and such a positive influnce in my life that she made me wanna do right jus so I wouldn't let her down. But when I read ur blog and the words u used to describe her were on point and I had to jus post a comment and let u know that I agree 100% she was a very special person

Raphael c/o '04


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