Lots of thunderstorms through my life. I don’t remember most or even mark them as a significant happening. Not sure anyone does. They are loud, windy, frightening, and so common as to be generally unremarkable. I do, however, retain a fond acknowledgement of the magnificent summer storms in Arizona. Every year, they dumped torrents of grey rain, flooding the streets of Tucson and transforming Bisbee’s steep hillside stairways into tumbling cascades of water. I LOVED monsoon season. My favorite thing about those storms was watching lightning crackle across the sky in great, jagged patterns. Then I’d chant “one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three, one thous –” until the trailing clap of thunder revealed the storm’s distance from me. Despite the rain, the storms always seemed so far away — out to the east or south, where mountains defined the horizon. It made sense for storms to rage out there. Only once did the magnificent sights and sounds of a storm occur simultaneously.
I was living just near downtown Tucson, in an old adobe house. I lived there with a few other twentysomethings. None of us could afford our own place. I was outside, watching the lightening show. My friends and I did that most evenings during monsoon season. The day’s heat was chased away by the coming storm and the “sky show”, as we called it, was far better entertainment than anything on t.v. On this particular night, I was alone, watching the storm build just south of town. The clouds hung heavy and black. No rain had yet been released. Great flashes of lightning occured every few seconds across the sky. The storm was blowing ever closer. I knew I’d soon have to make a mad dish inside when the clouds let loose their burden.
Just as I was having that thought, it happened. Huge, bright light flashed somewhere very near me and a horrendous noise filled the air. At the same time. They happened at the same time. The noise was absolutely deafening. And the air, well, the air around me hurt. I jumped feet off the ground. I shrieked in fright. And I was stunned to my core. “That was right here!” I kept thinking. “That was right here. Right here. Right here!” The thought looped around in my head over and over and over. It took hours for the adrenaline and the thoughts to dissipate.
I was deeply shaken. As I said — to the core. Suddenly the possibility existed in the world that lightening could and would strike close to me. Might even strike me. But my own demise wasn’t even the point. It was more about the shocking realization that lightning strikes randomly, inevitably, and that someone might be right there when it happened. Maybe not me, but someone. I was utterly dumbfounded by the whole thing. It happened. I was stunned by it. I was still thinking “Right here. Right here! Right. Here. Here.” The entire world stopped. Everything. Stopped. It was that kind of moment.
I had another like it today. A lightning strike of a different sort but every bit as shocking. And, as before, everything — everything — just stopped.
In a perfectly millennial manner, the news arrived via the screen of my iPhone. Something like “Oh my god, I just saw her recently when we met for lunch…” This was a message via Facebook Messenger. It’s not an app I use with close family and friends, so I knew this was something occurring a step removed from my nearest and dearest. However, it looked important. I was alone at work. Customer calls had dropped off to almost nothing. I felt I could turn my attention to whatever this was. I opened Messenger to read. A stack of comments piled up previous to the one that had appeared on my phone. I had to backtrack to the beginning. “What happened?” I’m thinking as I scroll, scroll, scroll. “Someone died. Someone died? Who died?!?!?!” And then I saw the name. Nancy Printz.
The name and the bright light and the boom of the thunder all happened in the same instant. The air hurt. I didn’t jump this time. Instead, I just… stood.
Then I put the phone down and wandered into the other room. And wandered back again. I picked up the phone. I read the posts again. I put the phone down again. I took a deep breath. I picked up the phone again then put it down without reading. I sat in my chair. I blinked. Everything just stopped.
Nancy Printz was my best friend in high school. Best friend. By my count, she was just 51 years old, or possibly already 52. She died from pancreatic cancer.
“Cancer?”, I shook my head. “No one dies from cancer anymore! You get treatments. Your hair falls out. You get sick and everything tastes like shit but you get better. But no one dies from cancer!”
Wrong. ‘Cause Nancy Printz just died from cancer. My best friend from high school, Nancy Printz.
Nancy with whom I spent countless nights, crashed out on her second bed because my house was all the way across town. Nancy, who like me, loved The Clash and The Who and Elvis Costello when everyone else was enamored of Huey Lewis and the News. Nancy, who sat with me in the little theater of our school, debating whether eating a candy bar might beckon us down the slippery slope of everyday, after-school chocolate indulgences. My friend who loved strawberries at lunch, who hadn’t a mean bone in her body, who slogged through the relentless days of high school with me and forgave my abandoning her each summer to escape to my beloved overnight camp. Nancy who had to straighten up her room before the maid came. Nancy who’s giggles bent her body at the waist, a concave gesture that revealed her absolute inability to ignore a good laugh. That Nancy. Nancy Printz.
Nancy and I didn’t stay close for very long after high school. We went to different colleges. We weren’t often back home at the same time. More and more we had less and less to share that the other could understand. We didn’t hold it against each other. She knew I loved her. I knew she loved me. We just moved on into different chapters of our lives. We didn’t know that weeks of no contact could and would turn into months, then years, then decades.
It was my first lesson in the way people could be important in your life and then not really be in your life anymore. And that it was absolutely alright.
We did get to see each other again though. A redeemable quality of Facebook — possibly its only one — is that through it I’ve been able to find and reconnect with many important people from previous chapters in my life. (And there have been many. But that’s an entirely different blog post. Or perhaps the Great American Gen X Novel. Who knows…) Nancy and I finally found each other through its six-degrees-of-separation format. “Hooray! Here’s what my life looks like now! Here’s where I went, what I did, what went wrong, what went right and fuck if I know what it’s all about anyway, this life.” We had that long email updating session. And then finally got to meet up face to face.
I joined her for breakfast. It was always our favorite meal out, not counting ice cream at PJ’s or gooey, cheesy stuff at Gardunos, or green chile pizza at Dominoes or… okay, we had a lot of favorite meals out. Anyway, this was breakfast, in Boulder, maybe four or five years ago. It was summer. We sat outside. We talked. We ate. We drank really good coffee. She looked exactly the same. I mean exactly the same. And also lot like her mom, if you can look like both at the same time (I happen to know it’s possible because I do. Or so I’ve been told.)
We had a nice time. We hugged goodbye. Then she walked to her conservative, expensive car and I slung on my motorcycle jacket and helmet before heading north to join my guy at a nearby music festival. Nancy’s life looked pretty much as I would have predicted. She was probably thinking the same of me, that my life was as she could have predicted — frankly, unpredictable. I thought about the things we tried to do as individuals, back in our high school years: do good, be honest, have some fun, and maybe figure things out a bit. Thirty years later, she was still doing those same things, in a more adult form: doing good in the world, living honestly, exploring what made her feel most alive, and still trying to figure things out. I hope she thought the same of me. I laughed to myself. Not so different, then, from who we had been at 17, when we commiserated about homework and tried to learn our lines for the next theater production. Now we were talking with our kids about their schoolwork and trying to learn the “lines” that could insure the well-being of our family, friends and selves. And working hard, still, to figure it out.
So this person, this gentle, compassionate comrade-in-arms of my younger days is gone. I’m still stunned.
How long does that last, the stunned thing?
The world has commenced its movement. I had to drive home, drop a package at UPS, feed the dogs, make dinner. The spring winds are again howling outside in the Santa Fe evening. I postponed this evening’s scheduled conference call about trips abroad to tomorrow. The dye pot won’t get filled and heated tonight as I planned. But things are moving again.
However, I’m still stunned. And this one, this lightning strike was close. Very close. Almost me — but again, that’s not really the point. The stupefying fact is that it happened. Right here. Right here. Right. Here. Here. here.