(that time we ran into each other in NYC waiting for our respective buses back to Baltimore)
I went to a farewell dinner for a dear friend tonight.
It was, of course, bittersweet: I’m so happy for her, she’s going on a grand adventure. She sold her house, and all her stuff. She’s not been working for a while now, and she is taking dog in the car and just DRIVING. Not sure where she is going to end up. And I’m sad, for me. I sat holding her hand as she cried at the table for about five minutes, while we all held sacred space for her, in silence. I’m sad she won’t be nearby anymore. I will miss her dearly.
She is fifty-one years old. But you’d never know it. She has a youthful exuberance and luminosity that could end our dependence on fossil fuel. Never have I met a more light-filled, positive person. Especially one that has more reasons than most of us NOT to be.
I met Kimberly more than 20 years ago. But it was when I worked with her that I really got to know her. I ran an HIV prevention program. She has AIDS, and she was a part of our speaker’s bureau. She is also an addict and alcoholic-coming up on 17 years clean and sober-and I used to call her my two-fer. Our program was aimed towards young people, and she could tell her story-both her HIV infection and her addiction-and have twice the bang for our buck with the kids. (she used to say I should pay her double the fee. I wish I could have.)
I heard her story more than a hundred times. I heard her tell it to middle-schoolers, to high-schoolers, to college students. To small classes of ten kids, to auditoriums of hundreds. And every year I went to her 12-step home group to celebrate another year of her sobriety. Another year of her journey. Another year of one-day-at-a-time.
I could listen to her tell her story every day.
I wish I could post a video here of her telling it. I could probably recreate a good rendition of it, and type it out (and she would give me permission to do so!). but it wouldn’t hold a candle to seeing her tell it.: drawing in her energy, being broken open by her honesty, her vulnerability, her courage, and her commitment to telling her truth in service of not only keeping herself healthy, but wanting to make a difference.
Wanting to prevent another 19-year-old from getting infected with HIV. Wanting to reach kids before they picked up drugs for the first time. Or maybe wanting to reach them at a time when it wasn’t yet a problem, or they didn’t yet know it was a problem.
Kimberly can reach anyone with her story, her smile, and her tears. Her honesty is completely naked, unfettered. She doesn’t hold anything back. She doesn’t feel a need to-she’s beat so many odds, and she knows, really KNOWS, that all she has is today.
I once couldn’t find her before a program at some school, I can’t remember now. I went everywhere looking for her and found her in the stairwell, in the corner, looking up, her lips moving, mouthing silent worlds. She gave me her signature giggle when she saw me. “I’m praying,” she said. “I pray before every time I talk. ‘Please let me say something that someone needs to hear today’.”
I listened to her story over and over. Every single time, there was some new revelation for me, something she had never included before. (which just proves my big life lesson in 25 years of social work: we never know the whole story. Even about ourselves.) And each time, I got teary as I watched her bare her heart and soul, so that someone else might not suffer the way she did. So that someone else might not get infected with HIV. So that someone else might not end up homeless from addiction. So that someone else might, as she said every single time, learn to “listen to your inner voice”.
“I didn’t,” she would tell the audience. “I could hear it, could feel it in my belly. But I didn’t LISTEN. I didn’t heed what my inner voice was telling me.”
A lot of times we drove together, or ate together before or after a program. We got to chat. We began to connect. And at some point, we crossed over from a purely professional relationship to a personal one as well-still within the confines of our working relationship. I grew to love her, to admire her, and eventually to be in awe of how she survived, let alone thrived, with all that she had been through. All that she still lives with.
At some point, I am not sure of the exact moment, maybe it wasn’t a moment it actually happened….maybe it was just the moment I realized it. I envied her. I am a social worker. I am the helper. I am the one who keeps it together and runs toward OTHER people’s crises. I help. I bear witness to the suffering and vulnerability of other people. Sure, there were people I was vulnerable with. But not an auditorium full of strangers, no way. I envied her ability, her willingness to share so much. To touch people that deeply-and allow them to touch her.
Once, when I dropped her off at her car, I said something that I often said. Some version of: “you amaze me. You are so courageous. What a miracle you are.”
She called me about two minutes later, before I was out of the parking lot. I figured she had left something in my car and needed me to turn around. I even took a quick look around the car before I answered. Nope. She said, “If you see that in me, you must have it in you.”
And I felt that envy grow. Not so much to tell strangers my secrets, the stuff I only tell MY therapists and MY closest friends. But the ability to be vulnerable. To lay it all out there and not have to keep up the “I’m here to help. I have no needs” persona that so many of us in the helping professions adopt–even, at times, with myself. (it’s exhausting, by the way.)
I decided, that when I grew up, I wanted to be her.
And when I left that job, we became *real* friends.
We met for dinner, and I blew my wad. I told her about the parts of her story that I too identified with, including that I could never imagine sharing them with strangers. Her first response came immediately, without thought. The expression on her face was a mix of surprise at what I was saying, and compassion for me: “But Bets….I still feel not good enough. All the time. Just because I’m public, doesn’t mean I’m healed.”
That just made me love her more. It made me want more of her light to spill on me, to illuminate all the things I felt I had to hide.
That was ten years ago. And in these last ten years, I have used her courage as a template, as a beacon like a lighthouse on the foggiest night. If SHE can do it, I can do it. I am not nearly the only one who feels this way, by the way. I know this because I hear the others in her life say the same thing. All the time.
She is literally the most courageous human being I know personally. I’m sure there are many courageous humans, but in my life she stands alone. And her courage doesn’t ring loud, and she doesn’t toot her own horn. (like, ever.) but if you ever heard her story, if you had any idea what she had to do just to get out of bed in the morning….if you heard her story and realize, as I did, that she should have died already…. about 50 times. She got diagnosed with HIV at 24 and got on meds in the 90s (which didn’t work very well to begin with). Her addiction meant not only getting off the meds, not only using drugs, but not doing the things you need to do to be healthy WITHOUT HIV, let alone with it: eating well. Sleeping well. Exercising. Having hobbies, a community, fulfilling relationships. Her boyfriend was murdered in a drug deal gone bad. She did risky, illegal things to get money for drugs. There are so many reasons she should not still be alive, and yet not only is she living, she is one of the most “alive” people I know. One of the most present people I know. One of the most grateful people I know. One of the most honest and humble people I know. She not only inspires me that I can heal my own wounds, that I CAN be “better”–she inspires me to want to heal, to want to be all that I am in the world. To not only find my voice, but heed it. To stop hiding.
Tonight as I sat at a table that ran half the length of the restaurant, with her family and other friends, I was painfully aware that this group was not going to reconvene in a few months after a 12-step meeting, in some other restaurant, celebrating her anniversary. There would be no stack of cards and piles of store-bought flowers that we always bring her. And yet, I felt so grateful. I felt so present, in her presence. I remembered where I was, who I was, when I met her over 20 years ago, even when I worked with her 10 years ago. I felt, in my bones, how knowing and loving her and being loved by her has changed my heart and my life forever.
It’s been changed forever before just like this. Knowing, and loving someone-andlosing them. In 1999, I got a phone call that my best friend-the person, at the time, I was closest with on the planet-had died. Out of the blue. Thirty-one years old, and married exactly 29 days. Since that day, the day that the bottom of my world dropped out and my heart broke wide open, I’ve done my damndest to try to appreciate everything as much as I can. I fail a lot. A LOT. I have days, weeks, months where I’m cranky and down and anything but present. I get mad over petty things and let them take over my mind. Amy’s death is my deepest reminder to be present. My deepest reminder of how fleeting things really are. When I remember that call, that day, the fact that I never got to say goodbye and the last conversation I had with her was completely uneventful, on my cell phone in a Target parking lot…when I remember how swiftly and completely she was no longer physically here, I am called to find my breath. I remember that moment when everything changed. I am called to try to be present. To look around, at the rain or the sun or the snow or the darkness, to the people that I have in my life, to whatever is happening in that moment. To be present. Because you never know when that will all change. In an instant.
And when I look at Kimberly, I think: she was diagnosed with death, many years ago. And yet here she is, despite tremendous odds. When I look at her huge, beautiful smile radiating at me, and think of all that she has weathered and the life that she has fashioned out of that suffering, all that she gives back to the world from her seemingly bottomless heart, it sucks the breath out of my lungs sometimes.
I will miss her being here. But she, even with this journey, ESPECIALLY with this journey, continues to inspire me to keep going on my own path. Keep peeling away the layers, walking through the fear to the love, and being the most “me” in the world that I can be.
Godspeed, my friend. I cannot wait to see what your next inspiration will be.
saying–not good-bye. just see you later–selfie.