By Linda C. Wisniewski —
If a loss comes early in life, it sometimes takes many years before its full impact is felt. When my kindergarten best friend was killed, I was more puzzled and scared than sad. It was only when I began writing my own life story and recalled the events surrounding her death that I was able to find meaning in it. Here’s what I wrote about her in Chapter Three of my memoir, Off Kilter:
What I remember most about Diane is the way she looked in her casket. That morning, our kindergarten class walked two-by-two down the sidewalk, then turned at the church and walked across the parking lot to Iwanski’s Funeral Home on the next street.
We quietly followed our teacher, a middle-aged nun who had seen much more of life and death. Behaving like 55 stunned little angels, we gave her no trouble. One of our classmates was dead, killed with her father in a horrible car accident. Her mother was in the hospital in critical condition.
Diane was so still, her beautiful dress as white as the padded silk lining of her coffin. On a step above and slightly behind hers was another, larger coffin. It held her father’s body. I knew him too, but it was Diane, my friend, I focused on, so strange here yet so familiar.
I have only one other memory of her, of a day when she was very much alive. We are at my house on a Sunday afternoon. Both sets of parents are seated in our living room, watching as I proudly spell my name.
“Diane’s turn!” I shout. She comes over to stand facing me and softly says, “D-I-A-N-E”.
“Cisek!” I shout again. “Spell Cisek!”
Her mother’s voice, soft and deep, interrupts me. “Diane hasn’t learned to spell our last name yet, ” she says.
Months later, as we filed past her casket, the questions flew through my little girl mind. Did she ever learn to spell Cisek? What caused the car accident? What was she doing in heaven right now? Could she see us? I didn’t speak my questions aloud. At five, I had already learned not to question what I was told: “God called Diane to be with Him in heaven.” And so, of course, she had to go.
Our teacher led us in praying the rosary. “Now, children, say goodbye to Diane.” She guided us as we filed past the caskets. The wooden crucifix dangling from her neck clicked against the wooden beads circling her waist. I walked along, grateful for the instructions.
“Goodbye Diane,” I murmured.
A few weeks later, my mother took me to visit her best friend, Agnes. She had been Diane’s mother. Agnes met us at the door on crutches. A large cast encased her left leg from ankle to hip. She was still in the hospital on the day of her family’s funeral. This was the first I’d seen her since the accident and her cast and crutches frightened me. When Mom and Agnes cried together, I didn’t know what to do. Diane wasn’t there to play with. The way her mother looked at me made me very uncomfortable.
Over the years, I thought of her now and then, but her face was gone from my memory; I couldn’t recall what she looked like. Then, fifty years later, I saw Diane’s face again.
My cousin Joe and his wife had invited me for dinner. They were recently married, though middle-aged, and as we talked about old times, his wife said, “Did you know your mother and my aunt were best friends?”
“Agnes? Your aunt was Agnes?” My mind began to whirl. Unconsciously, I held my breath and slowly placed my fork back on my plate. Could it be? …Joe’s wife… was Diane’s cousin…?
“Diane was my friend…She was your cousin?” The words tumbled out. “Do you have any pictures of her?”
Smiling, she left the table, went upstairs and brought down a large black and white photo, about 10 by 12 inches. Eight children sat around a table in party clothes, a birthday cake in the center. My cousin’s wife was a little girl at the bottom left of the picture. Diane was at the bottom right.
I recognized her at once: the shy smile, the white blond hair. With my woman’s eyes, I saw what I never had when we were kids: she had her mother’s eyes. I had come to this house by chance, on a casual invitation from my cousin. And found once more the face of my friend. Still missing her.
So much older now, I understand more clearly the enormity of what I lost when Diane died. We had a lot in common. She was blonde and fair and quiet like me. We could have been best friends like our mothers. Even our last names were similar: Ciulik and Cisek.
Both our fathers were loud and scary. When they ridiculed our mothers, we hung our heads, embarrassed and ashamed. If Diane had lived, we might have shared our Polish heritage, our small town life and our girlhood in Catholic school. We might have discovered together that life doesn’t have to be so sad, that women don’t have to suffer. We might have.
I wished, as an adult, for “what might have been.” And quickly saw how futile that was. Instead of continuing to long for a better past, I wrote everything I remembered about my friend into my book, including the insights I’d gained. I think of her now with gratitude and a sense of peace.
Linda C. Wisniewski teaches memoir workshops in Pennsylvania and speaks to groups about the healing power of writing. Her book, Off Kilter, can be ordered through Amazon, your local bookstore, or the publisher at www.pearlsong.com/offkilter.htm. Visit Linda’s website at www.lindawis.com.