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Wild Kingdom

It was the middle of summer about four years ago, and I was visiting my family—just hanging out in the refuge of the cool air-conditioned living room of my parents’ house. My family had the TV on, and I was knitting on the couch. My dad was working on his laptop; my mom was reading the newspaper.

Suddenly my mom asked for my attention, referring to the local newspaper she was perusing. “Did you ever know a Perry Moore?” As soon as she asked I felt an odd twinge in my gut and I knew whatever came next wasn’t good.

“Yeah, we went to school together. Why?”

“He drowned in Pleasant Lake. He died.”

Not only had I gone to school with Perry, but he was the boy I had a crush on in third grade. He was in fourth grade that year, but we were in a 3/4 split class that was made up of half third graders and half fourth graders. I only vaguely remember the specifics of my pining—he was funny and cute, and I remember he had some bit where he ran around on all fours pretending to be a dog. He was a crush I admired very quietly; I don’t even think I told any of my friends.

And now he was gone. As if it weren’t unsettling enough for someone you knew from childhood to die while still so young, the details they gave of his drowning left the whole thing a mystery. He had been at a family gathering at the lake and had started to swim from the shore to a pontoon boat out on the water. About 30 feet from shore, he just went under, and no one knows why. Nothing weird, no alcohol or anything involved, Just gone. And this is a tiny lake we’re talking about. What’s more, this is a lake that I spent many of my summers on in elementary school and middle school since one of my best friends was part of the lake’s membership. So this was a lake that always felt safe and inviting to me. I’d been all over that lake. I’d swum across that lake. I’d probably swum a million times in the exact place where he drowned.

My mom clipped out the article describing his death from the local newspaper, and it’s been neatly tucked into my third grade yearbook since.

What are the feelings tangled up in the knowledge that someone you used to know is now gone? It could be someone you knew a little or knew a lot. How are you supposed to feel when it’s someone you haven’t truly known in a long time? Are you allowed to be sad? And where exactly does that heavy and uncomfortable eeriness come from that seems to cover you when hearing the news? This was not the first time I had learned of the death of someone I knew from childhood.

Back in 2006, just about a month after I had started college, I was driving my Camaro homeward on the expressway in a weird-but-not-THAT-weird October snowstorm (this is Michigan after all). I underestimated how slippery the roads were and one wrong movement caused my car to skid, bashing the back driver’s side against the median before fishtailing and bashing the front driver’s side as well. I regained control of the car in a split second that felt like an hour, and was suddenly just driving along, as if nothing had happened. I quickly pulled off to the side of the road, breathing in big ragged breaths of delayed panic over the sound of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods trickling from my speakers.

My car was in bad shape. It was drivable, but only just. I was terrified of telling my parents when I got home. What would they say? I wasn’t supposed to get into this kind of trouble. I was supposed to be responsible. I was always a “good kid,” so any mistake that risked bringing my parents disappointment felt like the end of the world.

I remember so vividly how reluctantly I skulked into my parents’ house, tail between my legs. I found them in the living room, and as I was on the verge of tears I explained to them what had happened and that the car was in really bad shape and that I was sorry.

They immediately came over to me to wrap me in a huge hug and both began to sob.

Something wasn’t right. This was not the reaction I had been anticipating and there was a moment of confusion before they spoke the words.

“Lisa Meyer died.”

Lisa’s mom and my mom met at church before either of us were born, and Lisa and I were best friends from the very beginning and all through elementary school. There are a billion memories where our games and adventures are at the very center. I remember playing with homemade play-dough, pretending to be Sailor Scouts, and making weird concoctions in the kitchen that we would dare each other to try. I remember playing on the giant rock in her front yard and making mud tacos in my backyard. We were in girl scouts together and we were in youth group together. We went trick-or-treating together, quoted The Lion King together, and crushed on the Backstreet Boys together. We were inseparable for so long. And now she was gone.

I was stunned as my parents held me there in the living room while everything slowly sank in. She was gone. And I was here. The storm of tears was heartbreak and relief all crashing together. The accident didn’t matter. The car didn’t matter. I was here.

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Me and Lisa at a camping event in 1999

Lisa’s wake was surreal to me. She and I had grown apart in middle school, and though we attended the same schools all the way through high school, we had barely spoken since sixth grade. I recognized a bunch of people from my high school at the wake, but I didn’t talk to them. It felt like they were mourning a completely different person than I was. They had lost someone they had seen just a couple months ago. I had lost someone from many years past. I remember looking at the poster board of photos at the funeral home. They were all of Lisa, but only half of them were recognizable to me. The girl at the birthday party, mouth smeared with frosting and a goofy grin—I knew her. But the girl in the senior picture with the sleek hair and the model-like stare—I didn’t know anything about her.

When I think of Lisa, I’m certain I will always think of the woods. Of all our adventures in my memory, the ones that took place in the woods behind her parents’ house are by far the ones illuminated most brilliantly. We spent whole days wandering those woods, making up games and stories that we would build on for weeks, and that time has taken up a special corner inside of me. It crops up in my mind sometimes, and in my writing too. The following is a short writing exercise I stumbled upon from a college course I took:

Lisa and I are children again—unafraid and listening to the crunches offered by the forest floor in response to our footfalls. We see this patch of wetland and woods wedged between suburb and golf course differently than most. Our home. A wild kingdom of which we are the sole rulers.

Past weeks of rain have transformed the forest’s stream from a trickle to a rush of muddy water breathtakingly dangerous to cross. The ground’s been covered with a leafy mosaic of autumn colors. If a certain tinted tile catches our eyes, it will likely be snatched up to pocket and show off later. Other places are carpeted in lush mosses perfect for royal dozes. It’s even been arranged that some trees curve their trunks just so, providing seats on which to rest. Companions and subjects range from the bugs humming above our heads to the deer too shy to stand in the glory of our presence. Balding branches politely crowd the sky, hoping to supply what shade they can to the queens roaming the land beneath them.

This has been declared a day of exploration so we trek to the lesser known edge of our forest where the maze of tree trunks abruptly comes to an end. Through this wooded veil there’s a span of grass, properly cut and well-watered, speckled with sand traps and the flutter of red flags. Monotonous. Predictable. It’s obvious that the terrain ahead lacks the adventure and tests of courage we require so we turn back from this border between worlds.

Another hour of aimless wandering finds us far from our usual spots in a place brown with dead leaves that squish and gurgle underfoot. With a gasp it dawns on us that we’ve strolled right into the lair of our nemesis. The stench of decay hangs above a swamp stretching out to devour us. A huge jagged tree stump protrudes from the middle of the swamp, looking like a decrepit finger bursting from a grave to thrust an obscene gesture towards the sky. This is the throne of the enemy we despise most. We brace ourselves for an attack but our nemesis is too spineless to step forward with a challenge. Laughing with satisfaction, we turn from the dank place of evil and hike back to the heart of our kingdom.

I see her parents sometimes at the church where they and my own parents are still members. On these occasions, part of me is struck with such deep sorrow that I want to run. I want to hide from them an image of what a future may have looked like. Another part of me wants to tell them that Lisa will always be a part of me and how I see and remember the world. I want to tell them I will always remember the woods behind their house and our fearless adventures. I want to say something that will make them remember the things that made their hearts light instead of the crippling agony I’m certain they must carry every day.

Usually I just say “hello.”

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