There is a place that has stuck with me for more than 20 years. Not once have I been able to return there, but I see it in my head as clearly as any spot in my world. It is an island off an island. Along its shore sits an abandoned lighthouse slowly falling into ruin, shingles beaten grey by the howling Atlantic winds, the smothering Fundy fog, the salt spray and the endless, unrelenting neglect of the years. I always wanted to go across the bay to that island, but it never happened. So I just sat on the back deck of my friend's place drinking cups of tea and gazing across the chop of waves to the island. I don't even know what it was called.
This is really not a story of an island or a lighthouse, but that lighthouse seems forever linked in my mind with my friend. If it were not for her, I probably would never have seen it. Perhaps I would never have taken the rough little ferry across from Blacks Harbour to North Head, but because I knew a girl from Grand Manan, I had a reason to go.
I met Kelly on my first day of living away from home, ever. My best friend Mere was a year ahead of me, and she had already laid the social foundation at university, greased the proverbial wheels of friendship, so to speak, and I was moving into the same residence house. I had heard all about Kelly in letters (this was the pre-email, pre-text, pre-cellphone days, people) and she was there with Mere, waiting to meet me. I was a little jealous. "She's my best friend, not yours," I was thinking. I was 17.
Kelly had a big, giant, completely open and uncomplicated smile. It was hard to resent that for long. We were very different, but it still clicked, and we all became a gang, the Holy Cross House girls. Kelly always worked harder than any of us at school, as we were far more interested in the party scene than we were in attending classes. She always attended class. Heck, she even attended mass. Kelly was a Good Girl. The rest of us were far from "holy." We somehow made it through university, partying hard and misbehaving in any way we could. Frankly, I was not always the best kind of friend to have, and yet Kelly was always capable of seeing the best in us. She struggled at times, but she had a way about her that allowed her to see the light when the rest of us saw darkness. She kept us grounded, made us laugh. Her crazy collection of fantasy books, pots of tea, pitchers of beer, nights at the movies (Beauty and the Beast five times in the theatre) and her absolutely irresistible laugh.
We stayed friends throughout university, even when she had moved on to "serious education" and I was still flailing my way through a BA and every bad relationship I could find. At one of my lowest points, at the end of an abusive relationship, I was hiding out in my little studio apartment, in bed. Kelly came and got me, made me get dressed and took me out for dinner at Mexi's. It was my birthday. She was so kind that it made me cry.
In later years, after we had all returned to our home islands, we visited back and forth when we could. She started teaching in a one-room school on another tiny island that she ferried to every morning. I found this endlessly fascinating. I went to journalism school and ended up back in our university town doing a summer job at the newspaper. On weekends I would drive down to Blacks Harbour and catch the ferry to Grand Manan to stay in Kelly's little apartment in an old RCMP barracks. We drank many cups of tea, watched movies and read, laughed and talked into the night, looked out at the fog. It was balm for the soul.
In my second year of J-school I was floundering a bit, falling back into my old slacker ways, dissatisfied with everything in the way that always preceded a bout of depression. I spent a couple of wasted months doing excruciatingly mediocre work in a job placement in Ottawa, but I was lonely and miserable, and spent a fair amount on long distance calls. Kelly was a great long distance cheerleader. In March I was back on my Island, generally feeling sorry for myself. One night I was home alone in the house I shared with 3 friends when the phone rang. It was Mere, and she was choking on words that made no sense.
It was Kelly, she said. She collapsed, and her mom found her in the morning.
In that sweet apartment by the sea, overlooking the old lighthouse.
I remember sinking down the wall and we wept together, Mere miles away in Ottawa and me on the floor. It had been instant, an aneurysm or an embolism or one of those horrifying things that just snaps a life out like a lightbulb on a switch.
The last time I went to Grand Manan was for the funeral. Mere and I met in the town where we had all gone to university. From there we travelled down with another friend, all of us silent. It was a blur. A terrifying, numb, soaked, foggy blur. We could not hold it together, even in front of her family who were suffering so much greater a loss than us. We were selfish in our grief.
The idea that death could touch our lives in this way, take a friend from us at her young age was a shock that took our breath away. The fact that Kelly was such a good person, in my eyes a far superior human being to me, made it even more unbelievable.
It had become clear I could die at any minute, so I'd better get out there and live. I bought an old beater car for $800 that I drove hours on gravel roads into nowhere to get a good story. I hiked up a mountain, waking up by an alpine lake with mountain sheep staring down at me. I rode in a cattle drive. On an actual horse. I lived by a lake, watching the float planes land and take off every day. To put it crudely in true Cariboo style, I grabbed life by the balls.
I also met a guy and I gave him a chance that I have never regretted.
Would any of this have happened if we had not lost her? I don't know. I just know that her loss changed the trajectory of my life. I think of her so often. When I got married. When I had my daughters. When Mere and I get together for our yearly catch-up visit. When I took my daughters to see Beauty and the Beast. I dream about her sometimes, and I wake up feeling comforted. The world is so so different now from what it was in 1999. Kelly would have loved social media, would have relished the funny cat videos and the clips from Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show. What would she have brought to the world if she was still with us? She would have been such an amazing auntie, parent, teacher, friend. Even after all these years, I still can't imagine why she is not here.
Years ago, I had one of those dreams that are so real you could swear it actually happened. You wake up with the emotions intact, the conversation still reverberating in your head. I dreamed that Kelly came to see me, that I was so overjoyed and surprised and relieved. I still remember what she told me in that dream and how she looked, so well and so radiant.
"I'm okay, really. I'm happy. And everything will be okay."