I believe that friends whose paths once diverged can come back together again, in the most unlikely of places.
My childhood friend Debra and I started out on the same path. We became friends in 1973 while attending an elementary school on Chicago’s South Side.
She was among the smartest students in our third grade class and definitely the prettiest. She had exotic hazel-colored eyes and reddish-brown skin. She also had a kaleidoscopic array of facial expressions and a laugh that seemed too big for a little girl.
Breaking the rules, our teacher allowed us to eat fruit at our desks. Most of us brought apples and oranges. Not Debra. She brought pomegranates. We became friends when she saw me gawking at her fruit, and decided to share.
On the playground, we learned that we not only lived in the same apartment building down the street, but her apartment, her bedroom, was directly above mine.
For many nights, she would tap on her bedroom floor or I on my bedroom ceiling and we would talk across the divide. We shared secrets: school crushes, our plans to grow up and be doctors.
In adolescence, the map of our worlds ceased to overlap. Her circle of friends changed and she began experimenting with drugs. Not long after, her family moved from Chicago to Indianapolis. At 18, I entered college and Debra wrote to tell me she’d joined the Air Force, but couldn’t make it past basic training. After college, I began my career, eventually married and had a daughter. But Debra’s life took a sharp turn as she nursed an addiction to crack cocaine and started dancing in strip clubs.
Seeing no way out of her addiction, she attempted suicide several times before the night of July 20, 1998, when she was arrested for murder. Months later, she was convicted and sentenced to 50 years in prison where she is today.
Over the years, Debra, now 41, and I have kept in touch via letters and phone calls. I’ve driven to the prison several times but one in particular stands out.
This past May I drove down to see Debra graduate from college. She did so with honors earning the bachelor’s degree she now regrets bypassing years ago. She has transformed herself far beyond what it takes to attain a degree.
She’s hoping it will make her more employable when she’s released from prison—in the year 2020.
One of the hardest things you can do is watch powerlessly as a friend destroys herself. But it’s equally hard watching that friend rebuild, especially from behind bars.
We all make mistakes. I’ve learned that sometimes we avoid peril not because of any series of things we’ve done right, but by a grace far bigger than our own steps and missteps.
I believe that two friends can start out on the same path, travel down two completely different roads, and find their place together again. It’s possible even if they occupy two completely different worlds.
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