Sandy died on the night she graduated from high school in 1969. I haven’t thought about her in a very long time even though she was my dearest friend. Sandy Barnes was a beautiful girl, but her inner beauty was what I remember most about her. She was soft spoken and sweet and had a genuine smile that welcomed me into her home and her life. She lived across the street, so we were always together. She was a year ahead of me in school, and I looked up to her and loved her dearly. She was killed in a car accident on the way to the beach. It was a tradition to head to Myrtle Beach as soon as graduation was over, and she and Judy did just that. Judy, who lived two houses down the street, was critically injured in the same accident. She didn’t die, but she was never the same after that fateful evening. They were hit head on by a driver who was sleeping. My neighborhood and my heart were never the same.
Images of clay have been on my mind all week. I saw the familiar red dirt that produces a substance perfect for molding, but terrible for growing. I’ve always connected clay to my heart. Broken pots strewn on the floor and delicate vases abandoned on a shelf all trace their origins back to the sticky red mud that holds, hardens, and inhibits growth. The theme of my lessons this week has been growth, so it fits that God would bring that annoying clay to the surface. My father struggled with and cursed the red clay in our yard, and I found myself doing the same. I was sick of those images and asked God, “Why clay? What is it with the clay?? I’m sick and tired of wrestling in it and want to get out of it. I’ve had enough!
God heard my prayer and answered in a way I didn’t expect. What appeared was a totally unexpected and deeply disturbing memory that pulled the roots of my heart right out of the clay. It was terribly painful, but I didn’t turn away from the pain as God showed me how my heart became encased in clay. I thought it had something to do with daddy and his battle with the frustrating soil, so I was floored when Sandy’s face appeared.
Sandy was the first friend I lost to death. Her brother struggled with heart problems, and I often worried that Tommy might die after we had a rough ball game or strenuous wrestling match. The thought that Sandy might die never crossed my mind, but she did. In one terrible moment my view of death, dying, and my body changed forever. I begged and pleaded with my parents for weeks to let me go to the beach with Sandy and Judy. I cried, pitched fits, and promised to do anything they wanted in return. They would not budge. I was not going, and that was that! I hated them for not letting me go and made sure everybody knew it.
When momma came to tell me Sandy was dead, she was a mess. I know now she was thinking it could have been me. I couldn’t process the information. I was numb and empty and sorry. Guilt weighed heavily upon my heart because I was glad I hadn’t gone with them. My husband once described to me how he felt when a friend was killed beside him in Vietnam. Amazing relief and then horrible guilt for feeling relieved. That was exactly how I felt. Numbness took up permanent residence in my heart, and I went about for weeks feeling nothing at all. As I prayed and absorbed the image before me this morning, I knew the clay had begun to harden around my heart the day after Sandy died.
Sandy’s grandparents lived a few houses down the street, and they were having a wake for Sandy. I wasn’t really sure what that was, but mama said it was a “sitting up” with the dead. Sandy’s grandparents were old fashioned, and mama said I needed to go. I didn’t want to, but I forced myself to walk down the street and into the Ward’s living room. I was frozen in my footsteps when I saw Sandy’s casket sitting right in front of me, and it was open! Dear God! What kind of sick tradition was this!! Something was inside that horrible casket, but it wasn’t Sandy. My numbness got deeper as I stood staring at a body that bore no resemblance to my lost friend. I stayed because I couldn’t move. I wanted to run and never stop. A part of me did run out of that house, and it has been running ever since.
Sandy’s funeral was the first one I remember attending. I know I had been to other funerals, but I don’t remember anything about them. I was a flower girl and had to be at the church long before the service began. I wore a light pink chiffon dress and a Jackie Kennedy pill box hat. I had on white gloves that I threw away as soon I got home. I sat on the front row on the left side of the church. The middle section was for family, and Sandy’s casket was closed and sitting in front of the altar. The flower girls sitting together wondering what we were supposed to be doing. No one said anything to us, so we sat quietly.
A man with the funeral home came in to open the casket. I looked down at the floor wishing I was someplace else. He came over and asked if I would help him. I went with him and figured I was about to find out what a flower girl is supposed to do. What happened next is something I put out of my heart and mind for forty four years. I was good at putting unpleasant images out of my head and heart and could easily travel away from my body when things got to be too much for my heart. As I stood in front of Sandy’s casket in my pink dress and white gloves, I avoided looking in the casket. That wasn’t Sandy, and I refused to look at those distorted features. Her color was terrible, and her make up not like her at all. I felt myself getting dizzy.
With a matter of fact tone, the man brought me back to reality by asking me to lift the veil on Sandy’s hat while he fixed her nose. What? Did he expect me to touch her? He repeated his request as if it were the most natural thing in the world for me to do. In shock, I reached down and lifted the veil while he rearranged her features. It was clay! It wasn’t Sandy’s face at all. It takes me a while to understand the obvious, but it hits hard when I do finally get it. I couldn’t look away as this artist worked on his masterpiece. He talked about the heat and how hard it was to keep the nose in place. Blah, blah, blah… I drifted further and further into my own clay until he told me to go sit down.
As I put Sandy’s veil back down, I got some of that orange makeup on my white glove. I wanted to take it off, scream, and run from the building, but I went back to my pew, sat down, and put my hands in my lap. I don’t remember anything else about the funeral or the weeks that followed except that I erased the whole affair. This morning was the first time in forty four years I remembered the incident. Time, distance, and maturity helped me see the event in a new light. I didn’t ever connect to anyone as closely as I had connected to Sandy. I was afraid to get too close, and I found myself loving those who couldn’t, wouldn’t, or didn’t love me back. I kept my heart at a safe distance, not because of daddy but because of Sandy. Safety became all that mattered when it came to my heart. Don’t get too close and you won’t get hurt. I learned from Sandy’s death that it’s best to be safe and not sorry. Don’t take chances, and don’t venture too far away from my safety zone. If my parents hadn’t forced me to stay home, I’d be the one in the casket or in the rehabilitation center learning to walk and talk again. God’s ways are higher than mine, and I marvel at the way He transformed my foundation today. He shattered the old clay into a million pieces because that’s the only way to get rid of the hateful stuff. If you wet it down, it dries harder than before. If you burn it, it gets even harder. It has to be broken, but God waited until I was ready for a new foundation before breaking apart the old one.
I’m ready to get my body into the rich soil God has in mind for it. Soil is the foundation of the body and comprises the first chakra if you keep up with that sort of thing. When balancing the first chakra, I must envision it as it is before God can transform it into what He wants it to be. I have to want to be healed and be ready for the changes. The images of clay and fertile fields were never about my heart. They were about my body and my being. God knows I have to start at the bottom and work my way up, and He did an amazing job of excavating today. I realize I need to forget the horrible image at the casket and remember the many years of beautiful friendship and love Sandy and I shared. I also know I have to connect with others as I connected with her. She was an amazing young woman, and I wondered this morning what her children and grandchildren would have looked like. I know she would have been a great wife, wonderful mother, and a sweet grandmother. God showed me clearly that I was still feeling guilty for being alive and needed to forgive myself and move on. I know Sandy would want me to let go of the guilt too. God gave me a sweet memory of Sandy and I when we were very young. I was grounded and couldn’t leave my yard. I wasn’t supposed to play with anyone, but Sandy brought her dolls to the corner of my yard, right next to the street, and we sat and played for hours. It was the type of thing she was always doing. I plan to hold on to those memories and remember the feeling of letting someone get very close.
I can’t tell you how amazing it feels to be rid of that guilt, but I believe daddy would say it best, “I’m glad you’re out of that damn red clay and back in the rich fertile soil where you belong!” I agree daddy; I agree 🙂