(Note: This was published in September upon my departure from the Dallas Morning News. I got more response from this than most every news story I wrote during my almost 15-year career.)
One afternoon in first grade, I shared a school bus seat with a classmate named Lela Kay. With azure eyes and hair as yellow and fine as corn silk, she was the girl everyone had to be near. “Want to be best friends?” I asked. She nodded, and we formed our own two-member club.
My family moved from our home in Houston to Northeast Texas the next year, but Lela and I got together on trips down to see my grandparents. We’d trade outfits, lip-sync to our favorite pop station and, mostly, giggle over nothing.
Around junior high, I started not calling Lela every time I came in town. I told myself I was busy, but to be honest, I was hiding a festering jealousy. She was becoming lovelier and more popular, and I was not.
Then one day my mother showed up at my school, and sobbed when she saw me. Lela Kay had a brain tumor. When I saw my friend in her hospital bed, she looked out from those brilliant eyes, but did not move. Her stunning hair was gone. This wooden, bald Lela shocked and frightened me. I could only slink to the window and fiddle with a clock radio, looking for our familiar place on the dial. She would eventually smile weakly and grip my hand during monologues that passed for conversation. Still, she neither spoke nor stood until she died, years later.
I couldn’t allow myself to cut my hair as I went on through school, as if I could bring Lela back inch by inch. Nothing made sense. How could someone no older than I, someone so seemingly perfect, suddenly become a girl-sized infant?
Medical questions are now the daily fare of my job. I speak with those struck by illness, and as I did 30 years ago, people ask, “Why her?” “Why me?”
The human body is a wonder of engineering, but after daily encounters with all the ways it can malfunction, I sometimes marvel that it works so well, in so many people, for so long.
Some folks call me to cast blame for their conditions – on their insurers, on their employers, on their doctors. Some fault themselves. These are natural reactions born of anger or guilt, but also, I think, a search for comfort. It’s too distressing to find that so much disease happens out of an unpredictable, unfortunate shuffle of daily life and genetics that medical science is still working to explain.
Personally, though, I’ve long stopped wondering why Lela died. She would not want me to be glum. She would want only for me to see the time I have today with my husband and children as a gift. Because it is.
I have always believed that human connections offer the deepest sources of beauty in this life. But I am humbled to think how fragile they might be. Every day I am reminded that we will all die, and none of us can say how or when. I only hope those around me always know with certainty what Lela did not: how happy I am that they have lived.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.