When I get the text from Melynn, it’s 8:30 on Saturday morning and we’ve just finished our cinnamon buns and read the story of St. Nicholas. We’re in the middle of a new family tradition, gathering the toys we’ll be giving away that day. The boys are on the carpet in the hallway vrooming cars: Chris and August and Brooksie, all on their bellies in their jammies.
Melynn sends me a text to say Carey is gone. She died at 10:45 the night before.
I am standing by the counter in the kitchen, drying a few dishes, putting things away. I am doing what I’m always doing. And these words are not what I thought I’d see: Our friend Carey.
See, we had a neighborhood of girls. If I stood in my front yard at an angle looking back, I could see Carey’s house. And two houses down from her lived Melynn. How many afternoons did we knock on each other’s doors?
I’m at the counter in my kitchen but I’m holding an image of Carey in my mind: She’s a little girl in her most favorite t-shirt, one she wore for years: Barbie in neon colors and some hot pink wind shorts. I’m standing at the counter looking out the window but I’m seeing Carey, that image of her cross-legged on the warm sidewalk in front of her house, Barbie in hand.
I’m thinking of when we drove home from school that day in sixth grade and Carey’s mother stopped the car because she saw a broken bird flailing on the sidewalk, a bird hopeless on the pavement. Somehow Carey’s mother saw that bird from her seat behind the steering wheel. She pulled the car to the side of the road. She scooped that bird into a box.
Melynn always knew how to play with Carey, as if by instinct. Her ability to befriend someone different than herself—not from a place of pity, not because of any grown-up’s expectations—was one of those things God orchestrated in his grace: that Melynn’s family would move into the house two doors down the street from Carey’s. That Melynn would know how to love her. That Melynn would become her best friend.
Carey was the first person I ever knew with a disability. She was born with an extra chromosome. Down syndrome affected every aspect of her life: how she learned, how she played, how she experienced relationships. And we who knew her loved how she saw the world. She was intense and earnest and demanding. She knew how things ought to be done and most of the time she saw them done her way. She had blonde hair and a straight smile and a love for full names. She believed wholeheartedly in full names. So I was always “Michaboyett” and she never came up for breath.
It’s been a long time since Carey and I were friends. I’ve seen her maybe a handful of times since high school. But once upon a time, we were together every day. Her mom drove me to school each morning of sixth grade. I’d walk to their house and stand in the kitchen as Carey finished her cereal. (With water! She did not care for milk.)And I’d climb in the car with her mom and she’d drop us off in the parking lot. Did they give me a ride home every day too? I don’t remember. What I do remember is that one spring afternoon, when the sun was up and glowing bright, when her mother pulled the car over.
Carey’s dad was a veterinarian. And her mother said, “You don’t mind if we’re a little late, do you?” I didn’t mind.
And she pulled the car over and placed that broken bird in a little box and drove it straight to her husband’s office.
A flailing bird on the road, broken and waiting.
See what Melynn knew was how to love, without fear and without attention. I remember one year of elementary school, when being Carey’s “helper” was suddenly the coolest of assignments. When all my friends and I were trying to make a name for ourselves as the kindest and the most super of the “super citizens.” We wanted certificates and trophies. We wanted honor. Who was it that said Melynn hogged Carey, as if she were a thing to be shared and passed around? Which one of us argued over when it would be our turn to play with Carey on the playground, who would get to read aloud to her in reading time?
This is the story you should know: Melynn was never one of us. She was always the truest friend. After college, it was Melynn who moved back to Amarillo, who
got a teaching job and asked her friend Carey to be her roommate. It was Melynn who taught Carey to live on her own. They cleaned the house and bought groceries. They sent Christmas cards from “The Girls on Austin Street.” They lived like family.
When Melynn moved to the East coast, Carey stayed in their apartment. She lived alone because Melynn had already taught her how to do it.
I am standing at my counter thinking about Carey. That time in Brownies when I let her tie my hair in knots and my mom almost popped a blood vessel when she saw Carey’s handiwork. She detangled and combed those knots for hours. I’m thinking about God’s good grace and how he brought Melynn home just in time. How she tried to move to Dallas this past summer but the plan didn’t work. How three months ago she ended up back in our hometown. For such a time as this.
Carey wasn’t sick long. And Melynn was there. Carey’s best friend. Melynn, was there. At ICU. At Hospice. At the end.
Melynn sat with the family in the funeral last week. She was listed in Carey’s obituary as a survivor, as Carey’s best friend.
That time Carey’s mother stopped the car and she held that bird with its fluttering heart. So much compassion for life, for the most precious lives, the ones precarious, the ones half-understood.
Only a few know the glory they hold in their hands. Only the bravest give up what they can’t keep to offer the sort of friendship that lasts eternal.