When she saw the ambulance outside our house, her immediate instinct was to act. She texted first, hopeful for false alarms or a minor accident. My fingers too numb to text, I called her. She answered with, "What's happening? Is everything okay?" and I said, "No. Nothing's okay. It's worst possible scenario," and she replied, "I'm coming." She handed her baby to her husband, threw on a robe over her pajamas, and raced down the sidewalk. No second thoughts, no hesitation. She knew only that she was needed, so she came. She didn't know, of course, what the worst meant. Not until she came through the house, past the paramedics, past the sheet-covered body, toward the back, where Stella and I sat. Blinking back tears, she paused only a moment - one moment to fill herself with purpose - then swept forward with a smile for my daughter. "Do you want to come play at my house?" she asked, her face radiant and loving. Stella, whose best friends are her children, eagerly agreed. In moments, she had whisked my daughter out the back door and through the side gate. And minutes later, she was back, sitting next to me, holding my hand as my world rained ash.
In New Orleans, the news found her like a flash of lightning in a clear sky. The thunder that followed broke the trajectory of her life. "Do you want me to come?" she asked. "I will if you need me to." I didn't know how to answer. How do you ask someone to drop everything and accept such a burden, even your best friend of more than a decade? I told her I didn't know, that it was up to her, and she said she'd call me back. When she did, it was to tell me she'd resigned from her job, was packing her car, and would be at my side in four days. 2545 miles. Forty hours of navigating around winter storms, stopping only to sleep and eat, and she arrived. Exhausted. Smiling that familiar smile, crooked and shaped equally by life's joys and sorrows. Three trash bags full of clothes, a grumpy old Chihuahua named Babu, and a promise kept - that when shit hit the fan, we'd show up for each other. She left her life behind, her partner, her home and job, and moved into our spare bedroom to take care of me and co-parent her goddaughter. To hold everything down while the earth rocked. To witness.
My very first call was to my mother.
"Mom. Don's dead. He died. I don't understand anything. I need you."
Three beats of silence, then: "I'm on the next flight out."
Four hours later, she and my stepfather arrived at my door. Remember the paperwork? The endless lists? They made them for me. When all I could do was stare catatonically at walls, they tenderly laid the path that I would learn to walk - the path they'd both walked before me. I was young, they thought. Too young for this. And they grieved with me.
The third call, after my neighbor, was to his best friend. A paramedic, he was on duty at the time. He answered, probably because I'd never called him before. I don't remember what I said. He yelled - at me for breaking the sky, at the sky for letting itself break. An hour later he was there, wide-eyed with shock, shaking with emotion. We sat together as a police officer arrived with a trauma volunteer. As information and resources rained on our empty heads. He sat with me until it was time to say goodbye, and then he walked with me to the front room, where the medical examiner and his assistants waited. He held me up when all he wanted to do was collapse. Or maybe we held each other up. And we said goodbye to our best friend.
They came, two beautiful women who I'd met only months before in an AA meeting. Day after day, they showed up. A simple hello. A hug. A cup of tea. No, "What do you need?" but, "Here's some food." No, "How are you feeling?" but, "I'm here for you." I raged. I howled. I wept silently. They were present for my fall, and their faith never flinched.
My best friend from college flew in from California. My best friend in Seattle drove down. My mother and father-in-law. Brothers-in-law. More people. These witnesses. Neighbors we hadn't had the opportunity to get to know became lifelines of support. A net woven bright and tight beneath me. There wasn't a moment I didn't feel it. Not a second that I felt abandoned. I floated above and below, and they held the net to keep me safe.
When I could walk again - stumbling new steps - my friend was there to witness. They'd never been exactly where I was, but once, they'd been close. Close enough to know, to recognize, to honor. And to create the stillest, most peaceful space of all. When I didn't want to feel anything, they told me to feel it anyway. When I couldn't get out of bed, they said I could succumb or learn to move inside the pain. Slowly, in fits and starts, I remembered the difference between pain and suffering. One inevitable, the other a choice.
And I got out of bed.
They were a compass in my new world, leading not inward but outward, guiding me back from the bottom of myself. We walked trails through forests. Watched water roaring as it fell, whispering as it trickled through pebbles. We went to see a mountain that had endured cataclysm and transformed as I was transforming. In the beginning, I had to stop many times. Panting and weak. Dizzy and disoriented. I didn't remember how to navigate the earth. How to see and find reference points around me. I knew someone was there, that they'd catch me if I fell, but not once did they hold my hand. And so I learned to walk again, to feel the dirt under my feet and the rain, so gentle, on my upturned face.