I’m sending you love and light.
I never really understood that phrase and began to think I was friends with a bunch of Care Bears because I was reading it online so often. The internet tells me “love and light” is a phrase used by Reiki energy healers; a blessing rooted in the hope that your life will be full of love and bright white energy (light) of balance and peace. It’s fundamentally a prayer, but not called a prayer, and it’s usually dispensed when a person is going through a tough time or they’ve lost someone they love. I know we’re all made of energy and star stuff, and it’s not that I don’t comprehend the sentiment—you’re bestowing wishful goodwill on someone—but when I’ve read that in the past, I’d read it as, “I want to tell you I’m praying for you but that’s not politically correct or feels weird so please accept this shiny thought I’m metaphorically tossing your way.”
I’m a writer so maybe mine was an issue of semantics. I felt that if you’re not into the whole “prayer” thing, why not just tell them you’re thinking about them or that you’re there if they need a shoulder? Why call it love and light when it basically means the same thing as prayer? Are those terms used interchangeably or are they mutually exclusive? Does love and light lean more to the side of The Universe whereas prayer leans more to the side of The God of Moses? For someone who gets word-horny over vocabulary words and phrases, I spent far too much time fixating on this.
To me, words are valuable. I actually keep a stack of notecards in my top desk drawer and when I come across a word in a book or an interview I’m unfamiliar with, I write it on one side and the definition on the other. I’m working through my notecard PTSD—remnants from trying to learn Spanish in college—and I’m trying to reclaim the study habit because words are so important. It’s said that the pen is mightier than the sword so that means our words can either be used for speaking grace, hope, and peace, or they can be militarized to speak death, hurt, and destruction. The melodic lie of “sticks and stone may break my bones, but words can never hurt me” was sung on the playground when I was a kid—you remember playgrounds, the primitive form of smart phones—but the truth is that words were damaging when I was a kid and they became down right weaponized once I got to high school.
In high school, where teenagers whose parents forgot to parent them swarm the hallways like insecure piranhas, my respite was Rachel. We were on the yearbook staff together and she became my closest school friend. All of my other friends were at church and I had plenty of them, but Rachel and I connected in a way I’d never connected with someone outside of my church world.
She and I regularly held court on an overstuffed mossy green couch in the yearbook room. Before, during and after class, we’d sit together, using colored pencils to tie buns in her hair while talking about what happened on Friends that week. She liked to play with her hair color but it never strayed too far from a hue of red. My hair vacillated between the dark brown I was born with to the orange-ish yolky gold that brunette hair turns when an at-home-kit is used to create blonde streaks. When we found ourselves in the same classes together, we sat against the wall and giggled as opposed to engaging in any actual learning. I’d talk to her about what was happening at my Pentecostal church and she’d talk to me about the dances at her Mormon church. It was an easy friendship.
After high school, we kept in touch and saw each other a few times, but life got in the way and our conversations became less frequent. I lived further away and she worked all the time so as the years went by, our communication became sporadic and mostly by phone.
On a summer morning, days before I was supposed to leave for a grad school program in London, I heard from a friend that late the previous evening, as she was driving home from work, an intoxicated driver plowed into Rachel’s car and she didn’t make it. I sat stunned and wordless. For someone who loves words so much, I had none. This kind friend said she’d pass along any service information and offered the calming words, “I know Rachel loved you.” Those words were meant to be a comfort in a broken moment but in my current black hole headspace, they felt more like condemnation from the universe. Rachel and I hadn’t been in any sort of regular communication in years but still, the news sideswiped me. I sat back from my computer and breathed in the oddness of a moment that would forever be broken and suspended in space.
In school, Rachel and I were never in the super popular clique, we weren’t athletes, and we weren’t in the band. She wore rainbow colored sweaters and I was a too Jesus-y to be considered normal, but we had each other. During our senior year, she and I talked on the green couch about attending our ten-year reunion together. We planned on sitting in the corner eating loads of desserts and taking notes of who’d gotten fat, who’d gotten skinny, who’d had how many kids and who’d moved out of town. It was trivial and immature, but so many people had looked past and through us—we wanted to know what came of the kids who spent so much effort trying to be seen.
The most pronounced place to be seen in my high school was at the corner of the main hall during passing periods. There, a sort of popular-kids-cesspool formed where they’d mingle and bask in their achieved popularity. The girls would hug each other and the guys in their letter jackets would lean on the lockers like cowboys against wooden saloon posts. They’d stare at us commoners who passed by before going back to self-congratulating each other on being the spitting images of Britney and Justin. Rachel and I never stood at the corner of that hallway, but we didn’t need to. We had the green couch.
In the days after that broken summer morning, I couldn’t process her passing. As hard as I tried, the tornado winds in my head were too loud. I couldn’t even bring myself to go to the funeral. It wasn’t because I didn’t love her or that I didn’t want to pay respect to her life of kindness, but I just couldn’t bring myself to go. It sounds trite, like I’m making the situation about my needs and not about paying the respect which was due her, but that’s what I did.
I’d been to the funerals of my great grandparents when I was young and seeing them in the casket wasn’t something I felt necessary for closure. While it’s supposed to be about saying one last goodbye, all I could see was the frame of someone who used to be alive—who sang Cherokee folk songs in their West Texas living room—but wouldn’t again. So I didn’t go to Rachel’s funeral. I got on a plane for London a week later and my mind clicked over to my summer studies and to writing my thesis on Disney animated movies. My brain grew into a great compartmentalizer and I folded and tucked my grief into the back of the drawer with the mismatched socks and the belts that don’t fit anymore.
A year later, on the weekend of our ten-year high school reunion, I was living in New York City. I saw pictures online of the reunion with my classmates partying like the Homecoming dance never ended. Even within my curiosity of seeing how people had aged—some well and some not—I could only think of Rachel. It was the event we’d planned on attending together and without her, I didn’t even consider going. The grief I’d tucked away crept out of the compartment it’d rested in and like the mirror-turned-silver-goo in The Matrix, loss slowly coated me. It sunk into me and for the first time since her passing, the weight of losing my friend began to drag me under. Like an anchor plunging toward the seabed, I grieved my sweet friend’s life and the solace and strength she’d provided me during the years when I didn’t know which way was up.
Growing older involves learning to grieve on your own terms, which might not be the same as the person standing next to you on the subway. When the father of one of my friends passed away, he wanted to reminisce, not about his father because that’s all his brain had done for days, but about the good times we’d had at camp and on trips. His process needed to include airy good memories to make breathing room next to the hurt boulder in his heart. Adversely, another friend who lost a grandparent wanted only to be alone with her thoughts and her journal. There’s no blueprint, no finite way to cope with loss, and you can’t know how you’ll cope until you’re in that dark black hole place, feeling your way blindly to try to find the light switch again.
After seeing the reunion pictures, I wandered in a daze across town. I wandered 20 blocks away to the bar I dove into regularly and asked my bartender friend for a shot of something that didn’t taste like cleaning solvent. My feet knew where to take me when my head did not. Sitting in the dark corner alone, I raised my little glass to Rachel. I thanked her for showing me that someone other than a Pentecostal Super-Christian can live a life of kindness, of giving, and of compassion. By being herself, she opened my shutters and let love and light in. I realized she’d been embodying those Care Bear sentiments all along—it just took me years to recognize it. She’d brought me balance and hope in the middle of my emotionally turbulent high school years and in doing so, had turned that green couch into a place of peace.
Sitting at my little bar, I said a prayer for her mother who she loved with all of her heart, thanked God for Rachel’s life of meaning, and tossed back the liquor sacrament. Though I still miss her, the swept-over grief subsided with time and in a way, Rachel shows up for a moment whenever I meet anyone who wasn’t raised like I was but is indelibly kind. For the quick black pause of an eye blink, I’m back on the green couch putting colored pencils in her hair buns and she’s again teaching me about life, about unbiased and unconditional kindness, and about the lasting effect of shining—some might even say sending—light into people’s lives.
Dedicated to Rachel on her birthday.