I must have been six or seven, old enough to have comprehended life and death to some degree. Mostly, though, I thought about putting one foot in front of another in my carefree days. I would wander up and around the dirt road where we lived, try to engage my older sister, and failing that, begin to bug the only neighbor.
I don’t remember much about Joanie. Mostly I have impressions. She had porcelain skin and blond hair. When we played together I felt I was in the presence of one of those angels depicted in the Bible story books. She was never rowdy or very active.
In contrast, I was a dark-haired, deeply-tanned tomboy who created a swirl of dust and noise in my wake. I was constantly being told to slow down, pipe down, stop to think, and take care.
And so, I arrived at her door on that summer morning, prepared to be good as I knocked timidly on the door. “Can Joanie play?”
I don’t remember Joanie’s mother’s features either. I think she was a small woman. Her expression that day, however, is etched into my consciousness: disbelief, irritation and some sort of abhorrence I couldn’t comprehend.
Comprehension of adults was not a part of my childhood.
Maybe I lingered for a few moments after the door slammed. Perhaps I padded my way down their long driveway, scuffing my bare toes in the dirt and wondering why I was so bad and not understanding what I had done wrong. When I think of that day, my clenching stomach doesn’t give me the details. Ultimately, I think, I would have barreled down the road to my house and burst through the front door. I probably didn’t tell my story to anyone. No one would have asked. My sorrows hid inside me, buried in the shame that lodged itself in my child-heart.
Was that when I learned that Joanie was dead? Had I already been told and not understood or remembered? Was it during her final illness? What caused her death? Did I ever know? These question in my past won’t be answered.
I know I was in a wrong place at a wrong time and didn’t understand the consequence I had created. What I saw as utter rejection of my core being was probably pain and disorientation, but Joanie’s mother’s face marked a change in how I felt about myself.
I can heal the wounds of childhood. The memories remains as lessons and reminders. They teach me to be grounded in who I am rather than judging myself by others’ (perceived) reactions. They remind me that any one of us can unintentionally leave an indelible imprint in our moments of grief and/or distraction.
These memories also teach me to speak of my displays of ignorance in order to lighten the weight of their impact. Shame isn’t nearly so heavy when I share it.