Standing behind a row of fold-up tables, a dozen unknown faces return my shy, newcomer smile as I simultaneously try to read the bolded titles of the scattered sign up sheets. Ignoring my knowledge gleaned from guilty years of “just looking” at garage sales, I make eye contact with each hopeful representative on the other side of the table, willing me to pick up their pen.
I give each page a two-second once-over and offer my best, insightful ‘maybe’ nod, trying not to seem too eager as I sidestep from the sheet entitled “Fishing Group” like a spooked horse. Husband lingers. I move on.
I see her curly hair and unabashed smile first.
His Hurley surf shirt second.
Their sheet proclaiming “Young Adults Group” third.
Suppressing my urge to exclaim Sold!, I stretch out my hand to make an introduction, careful not to seem eagerly crazy even though I really just want to grab that sign up pen of theirs instead. I intend to simply match a name to this wide-grinned girl and tall, surfer-clad man beside her.
Focused on making eye contact and a friendly, lasting impression, I forget their names three seconds later.
Thankfully, one second is all it takes to meet best friends.
I wrote those words about you in a blog post a mere 14 months ago. Today I allow myself to remember the joy, gratefulness and love that inspired those musings. I remember a sweet and budding friendship that, at the time of writing, I thought I was mourning due to the cross country move of you and V. Little did I know that special circumstances would provide me the opportunity to grow that bond we had so quickly initiated in Florida through daily texts, Dubsmashes and Snapchats for the next eight months straight… culminating with our airport reunion full of hugs and OMG-I’m-finally-here smiles as we joined you guys in our new home of Southern California.
I began this post with that scene of our first meeting as I realize how reminiscent it is of a moment just 14 days ago — only with some very different details.
This time, I was the one standing, trying to win smiles from the strangers walking tentatively up to me. But rather than taking a pen, they reached for a pale pink peonie from the bouquet I held before laying it on your beautiful, wood casket.
You were there, your unabashed smile and vivacious curly hair in each person’s mind as your husband, who substituted his Hurley surf shirt for a sharp, gray button-down (don’t worry, he left the top button open for you), spoke the most honoring of words over and about you. You were there as he knelt in emotion just before the Coast Guard helicopters flew heart-thumpingly low over our small gathering, knowing how much fist pumping you would be doing had you been standing there with us. And you were there as V placed his hand where your shoulder would have been, rubbing his thumb over the smooth wood while speaking to the receiving line of loved ones.
Yet as much as I felt you there at your intimate burial service, I have endured infinitely more moments since your passing that prove you no longer share this earthly home with me.
It’s not bearing to delete any of the once-a-day messages we exchanged from our dauntingly-long text thread, despite my phone’s continual threats of low storage.
It’s knowing I will never be able to read Harry Potter again without being forced to resist the urge to pick up my phone and text you everything that just happened.
It’s never going paddleboarding again without remembering that time you and I set out together to brave the shallow, Pensacola waters in hopes of finding dolphins like our boys always did, but paddling back to shore after five minutes as you sweetly, but anxiously, demanded we go back because “there could be sharks.”
It’s the guilt I feel every time I think of taking pictures with my camera again, knowing I never made good on my promise to take my favorite couple’s fourth anniversary photos.
It’s the burn I feel in my legs every time I ride my bike up these steep, California hills, remembering the time just days after your latest chemo treatment when you followed behind me as we pushed up the dreaded Grandview Avenue, and as I made it to the top huffing and puffing, I looked behind me guiltily realizing I hadn’t checked backwards in awhile, only to find you chugging along right at my heels, seemingly not even winded.
It’s not being able to part with the baby succulent plant I have neglected since you gave it to me for my birthday this past summer.
It’s being angry with Facebook that thinks the latest political feud or kneeling athlete is more important to this world than the story of how one of the most adored and world-changing women–and one of my closest friends–battled gastric cancer with grace and God-given authority.
It’s knowing I will never say our first daughter’s middle name without thinking of the fierce woman who inspired it.
Your absence from this earth has been a tidal wave to my world, and I’m not selfish enough to think that my world was the only one rocked. But I’ve realized that it wasn’t your death that made waves. It was your life.
And so, it’s also about being grateful.
Grateful for the chance to have moved to your home state and do life with you again for the last seven months.
Grateful for your assistance in my discovery of bread pudding.
Grateful for the opportunity to watch each and every Harry Potter movie by your side as you graciously let me deplete your stash of Clif Bars and string cheese.
Grateful for getting to see so much more of your goofy personality, blessed weirdness, Oscar-winning Dubsmash performances, and unrelenting support, encouragement and unfathomable love for everyone–family, friend or stranger–around you.
Grateful for all the giggles that erupted over our kitchen table after you fell to the floor laughing, unable to get through a single round of Balderdash.
Grateful for the memories forever etched in my mind. Like seeing your tearful eyes glisten with excitement over FaceTime when we told you the Marine Corps agreed with our desire to move to San Diego. Or that time we told you both that we made something special that we wanted you to see in our oven–fingering the sonogram picture in my pocket and patiently waiting the full two minutes it took for you to look at us and the hamburger bun and back at us before slamming the oven door, flashing that huge grin and yelping “OH MY GOSH!!”
Grateful for the chance to witness the raw emotion of a surprise vow renewal between a husband and wife as passionate in love as they were in a Temecula vineyard on that perfect day in May four years ago.
It’s being grateful for continuing to do life with that man you shared your whole life with, and hearing his easy, contagious laugh… a constant reminder that it’s okay to be joyful and to cherish this life even though your flesh no longer shares it with us.
Grateful for the testimony of your life, your faith and the ever-enduring legacy you left all of us with, proven by the words I know you heard as you entered those gates: “Welcome home, my good and faithful servant.”
Even still, grateful for being tearfully blindsided at your celebration of life service when you surprised all of us: your shining face appearing on the screen, gracing us one more time with your sweet voice as you urged anyone within earshot to pursue Christ, choose Him and, one day soon, join you in paradise.
So lastly, Nicole, my treasured friend, it’s being forever grateful that I can say,
See you soon.