I hadn’t really thought about my High School experience for years, especially while enjoying the vividly contrasting experience my children are having today in High School. The world is so big (and scary to some – like me), and my children’s perspective of their future, because of the co-educational, diverse, academically challenging environment they are in for High School, is optimistic. Personally, though I appear Pollyanna-ish, I am a cautiously optimistic person by nature. “Expect the best but prepare for the worst” would be a good description of my life choices, and not always in a good way – I have missed alot of fun and friendship by choice because I felt I would not fit in.
Over a month ago, several of my former High School classmates lovingly and gracefully responded to the pleas of our friend and sister, Lori, who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and needed support. Lori, the Boston College Graduate with a Law Degree from Washington University, an impressive curriculum vitae and solid history as a humanitarian and philanthropist, asked for her sisters’ loving consolation for strength. Wow. I reached out a couple of weeks after the group had formed (I was on a social media sabbatical) by joining along with my classmates in cheering Lori’s indomitable spirit on, as we all knew she would prevail, as always.
Throughout our 24/7 conversations that took place over about 21 days, I couldn’t help but remember one of the foundations of our High School education from Visitation Academy, a Catholic, all-girls school in suburban St. Louis, Missouri, founded by the Sisters of the Visitation:
St. Francis de Sales: “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as true strength.”
In the moments between conversations, I randomly remembered things that happened in those days and then judged my immature 17-year-old behavior against what I know about myself and life today. The most difficult memory to reconcile involved Lori herself. We were co-counsels in a mock trial against my scrappy best friend (who ultimately graduated from Law School and became the First Female Chief of Staff for the Governor of Missouri). I knew she’d knock our teeth out in the first round. So what did I do? I hardly prepared – I let Brilliant, Sweet Lori do the majority of the trial preparation while I focused on what I liked to think of as “aesthetics” (e.g., flirting with our lawyer sponsor and shopping for my beautiful trial outfit). Heavy guilt and shame to bear 32 years later when this sweet angel has included me in the most intimate conversation of her life. In fact, more recently, instead of begrudging me for the things I did or did not do in High School, Lori reached out to support me in my Recovery from alcohol addiction. I learned in later conversations with friends that Lori was doing the same with many, many people – sending cards, donations to charities, and anything uplifting she could think of to love and support others.
I realize now because of Lori that people like her – beautiful, strong, accomplished, immersed in life – ask for help and support when they need it. That’s STRENGTH, not weakness.
I wish this story had a happy ending involving a massive reunion including Lori after cancer had left her body for good. It does not. She received devastating news about a month after her original diagnosis about the cancer having spread. She learned there were no treatment options. She continued to love and communicate positively with her dear High School friends until she entered hospice, passing away less than a week later. Stunned and overwhelmed with grief, many of us who had been writing to Lori through her most difficult journey gathered in the presence of our dear Visitation Nuns and honored her. We sang our School Anthem and prayed and embraced one another. We ate donuts, Lori’s favorite treat, and tried to reminisce about the happiness she had brought us instead of the sadness we were feeling.
Truth be told, I almost did not go. Even during my 4-hour drive to attend Lori’s service, I was tempted to turn around and go home to sit quietly on my comfortable couch. Why? Because I did not feel worthy of the experience. She was so good and I have so many faults. At one point, the voice in my head even taunted me and tried to make me believe that I did not belong – my presence would be meaningless. Still, I drove on to be with my Viz sisters and embrace the women we have become. I am glad I did. Lori taught me, even after her spirit left her body, that it is okay to be late to the party – it is okay to feel like an outsider, because we all have special gifts to give. The nuns hugged me and were so glad to see my dimples and big blue eyes!!! My friends fell over laughing when they heard my uniquely explosive cackling. I may not have been Lori’s best friend, but I had a special connection with her. I did belong and Lori made space for me, even unto her death.