Death of a Friend
by Shane R. Toogood
Above my television, ten years after Mrs. Connelly had given it to me, is a poster of Edgar Allan Poe: “In the Mind of Edgar Allan Poe.” It’s a portrait of the Master of the Macabre with images of his greatest pieces bursting from his cerebellum and into the world: the nevermore raven, the black cat Pluto with his one eye, the gold bug crawling over his monstrous forehead…
She and her husband, Chris, had visited the Poe Museum in Philly and, as a graduation gift, she gave me the poster. (“I hope you didn’t already have one–I couldn’t remember if you said you had been to the Poe House or not.”) That following fall Sandy would be starting her new teaching job at Delaware County Community College, the same school I was heading. Knowing I’d have a friend in the halls made going to college easier.
The usher pointed to a parking spot as I rolled up to the funeral home in my friend’s car. He let me borrow it so I could properly pay respects to the family. In person. It was important for me to tell them that their loved one was mine, too, but I didn’t want to intrude, only having met Chris once in high school. Didn’t he have a beard and glasses? Wore flannel? I thought about her two sons. They wouldn’t be there, would they? I imagined telling them, four and six, who their mommy was to me.
Should I just keep driving?
When you work in the funeral industry, even if it is just answering their phone calls, you get a bit desensitized. Just to cope. And before March of this year, I hadn’t cried in almost ten years. Not even at my grandmother’s funeral four years ago. For awhile I thought I had a steel heart or was border-line sociopathic.
Stepping into the parlor, alone, I blended with the others, now knowing what it was like to be the person on the other end of the phone. A female usher handed me the program: smiling Sandy on the front, opening a present at a school desk, presumably Upper Darby High School.
I smiled back.
Whether you believe in a diety or fate or some collective, cosmic consciousness, I was meant to see Sandy a few months ago at Bertucci’s. I was there with friends, waiting to be seated. First I saw Gina with her infant son, leaving. She and I became friends before I even took her creative writing classes at the community college. We caught up before she pointed beyond the wall: “Sandy and Bonnie are here.” Bonnie mentored me on the school paper at DCCC. “They’re in the back.” Bonnie, Gina and I kept in touch via Facebook, but Sandy, I hadn’t seen her in a while.
Later, as my friends and I ate, I noticed Bonnie, their colleague Denise, and, finally, Sandy walking out of the dining room. She placed her hands in prayer position over her mouth and then put out her arms. I couldn’t get to her fast enough. She seemed to be fighting back tears, friends-never-forgotten.
Her hair was cut short, not her usual shoulder-length bob, and her once Snow White skin was now rouged–but that could’ve been the lighting. The soft down of her new cut brushed across my cheek. It’s great to see you, I told her. I’ve been meaning to write. I finally graduated college!
“Ooo, that’s good,” she cooed, still smiling. I debriefed her on the past few years and told her I’d write. She told me, “I’d like that.” We said goodbye.
“She has been quite ill in the last year and a half and has taken a turn for the worse in the last couple of weeks…” Gina’s Facebook message wasn’t a shock so much as it was thirty-nine lashes across the face. When I saw Sandy at Bertucci’s I thought she looked different, but she was fine. I was being silly to think she was sick. She would have told me, right? “Though she is not able to read emails, her family can read letters to her.” Do it now, I told myself. Easter Sunday, 2013, I lost another friend and mentor, the New Hampshire Poet Laureate Walter Butts. The letter I started for him still stays folded in my Trapper Keeper, unfinished. It was too late. By the time I started the letter, only a few days after learning he was ill, he was gone.
The guest book. A phrase I hear so often at work–is the guest book provided by the funeral home or is it included in the price? I’m not sure, but I can have the director call you right back–would now bear more meaning. My heart was beating so hard my body shook as I attempted to sign my name in a straight line in the guest book. For Sandy, once more…
Once, in the middle of a class assignment my freshman year in high school, Sandy walked over to me with a pen in one hand and the school’s purple lit mag in the other, beaming. My short story had just been published.
Kneeling down, she placed the open magazine next to my composition book and asked for my autograph. Some of my peers looked up from their papers, making me a bit self-conscious at first, but when she told me she couldn’t wait to tell people she knew me once (something any writer wants to hear), I proudly scrawled my name. I knew it then, and I know it now, had I never had the privilege of knowing Sandy, becoming friends with her, I might not have known what to do with my life. She was more than a dear friend and mentor: Sandy is an integral part of who I am; she prodded the “me” out of myself. For that, I will be forever grateful.
We essentially followed each other to DCCC where, between classes, she and I would talk in her office. Told me to call her Sandy because she hadn’t been my teacher in quite some time. When I graduated from DCCC, a few of her colleagues would joke with her: “You following Shane to Goddard, too?” She’d laugh. Say she was looking for a position. And of course I wouldn’t have minded; at least I’d always have an office to visit.
Time was eternal idling in that line. Watching the slideshow on the flatscreen, I immediately suppressed even the slightest inkling of a lip-quiver. Not here, Shane. Not in public. The Pina Colada Song and Brown Eyed Girl played…played…played…until I was forced to burrow my own earworm with Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeores’ “Two.”
I practiced what I’d say in case I got choked up when introducing myself to the family. At work we’re prompted to offer condolences, but it never gets any easier. Chris, my name is Shane Toogood. Sandy taught me in high school. She really encouraged my writing, and through that we became friends. I could see him standing next to the casket: no beard and light hair. Where did I conjure up this remembrance of a hipster with dark-rimmed glasses and a bushy beard?
The funeral home was very comforting with framed pictures of Sandy and her family on the tables making it feel more like we were in her own home. Typically I don’t view bodies. Not up close. And I realize now that it’s not being around the dead that made me feel so uncomfortable for so long, it was not knowing what to tell the family. My name’s Shane and I was a friend of Sandy. I’m so sorry for your loss. I kept a watchful eye, hoping to see at least one familiar face. Bonnie and Gina said they’d be there. A few of Sandy’s colleagues trickled in, but they were too far or too distraught to notice me. (Remember me?) Before I left the house I thought about texting Gina that I was on my way, hoping it would entice her to wait for me. We could go in together, and then maybe she could explain to the family who this tall stranger is.
I was around the corner now, the casket twenty feet from me. A stuffed Super Grover was propped at the bottom, waiting to take flight over the the purple casket spray draped over the top.
Aside from some chattering and the skipping songs, the funeral home was quiet, somber. Then I heard a burst of crying up front. I looked towards the family. First I saw Bonnie talking to Chris’ parents. Then Denise. And there was Gina, wearing sunglasses, rocking with Sandy’s mother. Sandy lay in the casket.
Bonnie made her way over, her arms waiting to catch me. Sandy had urged me to introduce myself to Bonnie, knowing she could help me with my writing. Plus, “Bonnie has had a few publications,” she said. My chest sputtered like a car engine trying to turn over. I turned away, suddenly not sure if I wanted her to see me or maybe I knew that if I saw her, this pressure building inside of me would burst and I’d leak all over.
Bonnie wrote: “Shane, I have very sad news.” This was last Thursday. “Sandy Connelly passed away last night…This is truly heartbreaking.” Heartbreaking. I never knew the impact, the density of the word, until it crushed me breathless. A word tossed so loosely, like dirt off a shovel, now gained meaning.
We didn’t say anything, just cried in each other’s arms.
Bonnie expressed her love for my online condolences. She asked Denise, putting an arm around her shoulder, if she had read it. She hadn’t, so Bonnie recapped the story of the autograph. We all fought back tears, using bunched up tissues to stop the flow.
I folded over to hug Gina and we whispered how deeply sad we both were. Finally, I could let go, grieve with the ones who knew my pain. The ones who cried on their beds, too, hoping their sobs would rock them to sleep. The ones who turned up the music to drown out their crying, but just the same hated that the songs were playing.
My dry mouth, I could tell, smelled like decay. I needed a mint. There were bowls of them everywhere, wrapped in mute silver plastic. A mint could help coax out some H2O. Another one of my past professor’s joined the huddle. “Oh, Shane.” She looked at me over her glasses, telling me how much Sandy loved me. They all told me.
The mint wrapper crackled in my fumbling hands. I hoped it was spearmint. But instead of a Golden Ticket I found a lone chocolate. Better than nothing. I bit down. A dry dinner mint crumbled like ash beneath the chocolate coating.
I needed a mint!
Writing Advice. “Of all the things you’ve written…I think that horror is the best,” Sandy once wrote to me. This was her polite way of telling me that the modern tale of unrequited love I wrote for a girl I was courting in high school was complete shit. I heeded her advice.
My heart was pounding. I stood beside the open casket, admiring how beautiful Sandy looked, holding her purple rosary beads. Just the way I remember her. The first time without a visible smile. Two people away. But her presence was still warm.
Chris, I’m so sorry for your loss. My name is Shane. Sandy and I were friends from Delaware County Community College. Chris’ eyes met mine. Or so I thought they did. I gave him a sad smile, to both acknowledge I saw him and that I was sorry for his loss. Next. My body stopped producing saliva after I drained every ounce of water from my body onto Bonnie’s shoulder.
Chris, my name is Shane. Toogood? Sandy taught me at Upper Darby and we remained friends since…I opened my mouth to speak.
Chris put out his hand. “Shane, right?” I shook my head, walked a few inches. He was taller than me which, in that moment, seemed so appropriate. “Sandy told us so much about you.” He told me about how much she and the family loved the letter I sent a few months ago. How much Sandy loved it. I was on auto-pilot, trying to think of things to say. To respond. Bonnie and Gina’s voices lingered in the back of my head. Are you by yourself? Are you going to be okay? I hope so, I kept saying. “And you didn’t know she was sick?”
“I did. Gina reached out to me,” I told him, immediately wanting to offer a retraction. Should I have lied? Told them I didn’t know? If not to protect the family’s privacy, but to protect Gina’s confidence? “But I didn’t know it was this bad.” Chris said Sandy didn’t think I knew, and I was glad. After Walter’s death, I wanted to reassure her how much she means to me anyway; it’s better that she rest in peace thinking I was ignorant. Sandy’s mom nearly jumped up and dangled from my neck when Chris introduced us. She told me she loved the letter. Sandy loved it. “We all love that letter! We’re going to put it up in a frame.”
Her father reminded me that we had met when the U.S. Poet Laureate visited the college. “Kay Ryan! That’s right!” He was glad I came. They made me feel at ease and I could sense Sandy’s love through them. And when I tried to offer my condolences, each family member would instead tell me how I affected Sandy. “Just know that you meant a lot to Sandy,” her sister said. I do, I said, feeling that I know Sandy so much better.
Above my television, ten years after Sandy had given it to me, is a poster of Edgar Allan Poe: “In the Mind of Edgar Allan Poe.” It’s a portrait of the Master of the Macabre with images of his greatest pieces bursting from his cerebellum and into the world: the nevermore raven, the black cat Pluto with his one eye, the gold bug crawling over his monstrous forehead…and stuck between the frame is a funeral program boasting the picture of a friend opening a present, melting ice cream cake beside her, and an effervescent smile that will never fade.
Shane earned his BFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. His fiction and articles have been published in various newspapers, blogs, and lit mags including the Philadelphia Inquirer and, most recently, the inaugural issue of the Philly Anthology, Vol. 1.