Orange Balloons

 

I debated about writing this post.  I thought about it for weeks, actually... every time I would glance at my calendar for June to see what weddings I had and when I would be out of town.  There it was, every time... a heart I draw around each calendar, each year, marking June 14th.  This June 14th, today, marks ten years, a thought that staggers me every time I realize it.  Ten years since we saw that infectious smile, ten years since we began to understand what loss is really about.  Ten years of orange balloons.

 

Kacy was a classmate of mine, and to be honest, I can't remember how we became friends.  My town isn't huge, so a lot of us went to school together since kindergarten on, but Kacy wasn't in my elementary school, and so I didn't get to know her until freshman year.  We must have had classes together, and here's the thing:  we were completely opposite.  I was a totally awkward teenager... I had been a chubby kid with glasses until middle school, when all of sudden I shot up about 4 inches, lost about 40 pounds, and had to get braces to straighten out my god-awful fangs.  Going from fat to skinny to a new school with braces and acne... I mean I guess it was just your average teenage life.  But I think if I had to pinpoint where I got my self-deprecating nature from, this was probably the time period it developed.  If you think other people are going to laugh at you, the best thing to do is be able to beat them to the punch and laugh at yourself.  I would poke fun at myself, referring to my fat days as when I "looked like the blueberry girl from Willy Wonka" (remember how big she got?? um yeah, I was close) and constantly talk down about myself because that's how I felt- unconfident, ugly, and constantly afraid of others judging me.  It's funny how much of that we end up carrying into our adult lives.

 

On the outside, Kacy was the opposite of me, in every sense of the word.  She was gorgeous, happy, popular, and confident.  Everything I wasn't, and so I never envisioned us being friends.  But as I got to know her, and plenty of my other classmates and friends, I realized:  none of us had it all together back then.  And despite us insisting to our parents that we did, we did NOT know everything.  We still don't.  It's been ten years since my awkward days, and there are still things every single day that make me second guess myself.  Life is full of doubt and compromise, of second guesses and fear.  None of us are immune, some just handle it more gracefully than others.  Some choose to smile through the ups and downs and appreciate life every day.  That was Kacy- always smiling, appreciating her family and friends, living life to the fullest.  She was infectious- her laugh, her spirit, her love of all things orange... and who could forgot those house parties?  I remember one monster bash she had, where the next day we were literally scraping cookie dough off her family photos and trying to put everything in the house back just the way it was before her parents left.  I think it took them about 5 minutes after walking in the door to realize she had had a party.  She was still paying for that one weeks later, when her parents got the cable bill... one of our classmates had ordered an adult movie on Pay-Per-View :)

 

Like I said, I don't know how it happened, but we became friends.  The last time I saw her, a few weeks before she passed, she had just gotten home from school for the summer and we ran into each other at the store.  We pretty much attacked each other in the aisle, hugging and catching up on our years.  We made plans to go to lunch, and hugged each other about a million times before saying bye.  That same night, I ran into her at a place down on Worthington Street in Springfield, and we had the reunion all over again.  That was the thing about Kacy- even if you had just seen her, you were always happy to see her again.  What I didn't know then, was that after that night I never would.

 

I'm not going to go into details here.  Those who live here know what happened and a few very close friends from college do as well.   On June 14th, 2002, I would say that the class of 2001, the high school, and the entire town changed in a major way.  Before then, I didn't know anyone who had died besides my grandparents and older relatives.  I wasn't naiive, per se... I know and have always known that bad things happen to good people every day.  But it didn't happen here.  Not here.  Not until then, and by that time, I had spent 19 years in my safe little bubble... I wasn't prepared to be yanked out and deal with the death of a classmate, a friend, someone my own age.  But I guess life never prepares you for its biggest lessons, does it?  You have to learn as you go.

 

I hate death.  I guess that's obvious, I mean no one EVER is thinking "yay, death, mortality sounds fun."  No.  We all fear it, whether we voice those fears or not.  We all experience it, against our will, and we all face it at one time or another.  Those are the hardest times, but I think the times that build the most character as well.  In the weeks after Kacy's death, I think we went through the normal things a class of reeling just-grads went through.  We had all just finished up our first years of college, and still had that invincible nothing-can-touch-me feeling.  June 14th brought us back into reality and made us experience loss, real loss... the kind that leaves you numb and in denial and unable to make a next move.  My stepsister's father was one of the first officers on scene, and when she broke the news to me, I didn't believe it.  I couldn't, because this was beyond anything I was capable of understanding.  In the days that followed, there was a candlelight vigil at the school.  In the weeks that followed, there was the wake, the funeral, the garden being built behind the high school, the dedication of the garden, and the orange... orange was everywhere.  A younger teammate of Kacy's had created hundreds (if not thousands) of orange ribbons, along with little cards explaining what they signified, and suddenly everyone in town was touched by the legacy Kace left behind.  The bank teller, my post man, teachers that never even had her.  Last year, I went to J.J.'s for ice cream in the summer and the girl serving me, who could not have been older than 15, had a giant orange ribbon puff painted on her shirt.  The ribbon is still stitched in orange on the field hockey uniforms every single year, a team that Kacy's mom has since coached.  She's still everywhere, all around us.  I think of her when I see a butterfly, an orange ribbon, an orange balloon... so many reminders.

 

It took me a long time to appreciate them.  I think grief is different for everyone, but some stages of it are the same.  That summer, I thought of nothing else but Kacy.  I didn't want to.  It was like I physically could not put another thing in my mind; if I did, I might break.  I visited her mom often, and spent a lot of time with my friend Sarah, who was closer to Kacy than I was.  She was having a rough time too, and it helped to be around people who understood.  I remember Kacy's 19th birthday, which was only two months after she passed... we all went out to eat at Bertucci's and we toasted her.  I came across the picture today and we were all wearing orange shirts with our orange ribbons attached.  We had named a star for her, and brought the certificate to her mom that evening.  I couldn't look at her mom without breaking down into sobs.

 

That was the first birthday with orange balloons.  At Kacy's grave, every June 14th and August 25th, her mom and dad tie a bunch of orange balloons to a stake, with Sharpies and picture of Kace and a note, always reminding us when we visit to write Kacy a message, as "she'll be waiting to catch it in the sky."  The number of balloons correlates to what birthday it would have been, or what anniversary it is.  The first few anniversaries and birthdays, I would break down just seeing the balloons.  But now, they bring me a smile.  They are a constant, in a world Kacy proved is anything but.

 

Truth be told I miss her, and that grief hasn't gone away.  But ten years brings some clarity, some peace, and some understanding that she wouldn't have wanted our lives to stop forever.  Kacy could never sit still, always bouncing and energetic and ready to go, go, go.  I still miss that.  I miss our nicknames for each other, which are too crude to put on my blog but make me giggle every time I remember us using them.  I miss her.  I didn't know how I'd feel on ten years, whether I'd want to spill all this out or just keep it to myself.  But she deserves our words and our thoughts, some of which have been written down and sent up to Heaven on orange balloons today.  I know she'd be proud of all of us; we graduated with some wonderful people who are doing great things.  And I know people miss her at every milestone- so many of us (besides myself haha) are settling down, getting married, starting families.  I wish she had had the chance to do those things.  But knowing that she's looking down makes me smile.  And when I see those orange balloons, I know: she's still here.

 

A few pics of us together...

 

 

Being inappropriate at a football game.  And no, she's not throwing up on the right hand picture... these photos actually had to do with our nicknames for each other :)

 

 

My favorite picture of us together.

 

 

Miss you, pretty girl.  Today and always.