When I heard the news, I tried to remember the last time I talked to Richele. Was it when I saw her at the Hickory Point? She was buying a six-pack of beer and I was pumping gas. She wore a pair of flared-leg blue jeans, the kind she’s worn since 1995, the year we listened to nothing but Bush and Silverchair on the CD player in her white Ford Mustang and made late night stops at Taco Bell for two soft taco supremes (no tomato) with a small Mountain Dew before retiring to her waterbed for the night to sleep off our antics.
Maybe the last time we talked was when she called to ask me to look over her resume and pass it along if I heard of any job opportunities. She’d moved back home and was looking for work to help her get back on her feet.
It’s frustrating because I can’t remember clearly. I can’t pin point the exact moment I saw her last or the last time I heard her voice.
Wait. I do know.
The last time I saw Richele was at a funeral. I wish I’d known that the next time I saw her would be at her own – her own funeral.
Our 20th year high school reunion is less than a year away. Richele never would have accepted that we are indeed getting old. She was a cheerleader back then and somewhat of a gymnast. She could at least perform a back hand spring. I always admired that about her. When she grew up she wanted to be a veterinarian and she’d attend vet school at University of Georgia. That was early on, though. Later she decided she would attend College of Charleston and study physical therapy. Those were her dreams once. The fact of the matter is that regardless of what path she chose she would have done exceptionally well because Richele had a brilliant mind.
“Hey, when we go to Morocco… I think we should wear completely different clothes… and be completely different people.”
-Penny Lane, Almost Famous
She reminded me of Penny Lane from the movie Almost Famous. The young Penny Lane, the one who hadn’t yet turned 20 years old. And not the entrepreneur or business woman Penny Lane, but the one who wasn’t afraid of anything. The adventurer. The free spirit Penny Lane. The Penny Lane that made up the rules as she went along. The Penny Lane who only wanted to have fun. Richele was that Penny Lane. Richele was the friend who lived outside the lines. Convention was lost on Richele. Systems and policies were hers to defeat if not destroy. She lived a life of freedom only held hostage in her adult years by alcohol and by drugs.
The person who was with her when she died said this was the first time she’d tried heroin. Those of us who knew Richele know that’s not the case. And not because we’d ever seen her do it but because we knew Richele. Richele made the rules. Richele did what Richele wanted to do. In her younger years, drugs and alcohol were a way to let loose and have a good time. They only became her demon when she could not stop and when the people around her allowed her to make excuses for not stopping. Many of those people were at her funeral yesterday. The ones who let her lie. The ones who let her run. The ones who let her continue to make the rules.
She did not look like Richele when I saw her lying in the casket yesterday. Her long face was more round. Her freckles more prominent than I ever remembered. She looked years older than just 36. I hadn’t planned on seeing her. I’ve never been one to handle seeing a dead body. A shell that never resembles the person I knew. I’d rather remember her smile; her laugh. She would have hated everything about yesterday. “Fuck this shit,” she would have said. “Go party.” She would have never wanted lines of people passing by her lifeless body to take a peek. She would have hated the crying. She would have wanted people to laugh, and drink and dance. I kept having to remind myself how funerals are for the living not for the dead.
During her service, we were given the opportunity to stand and share a memory or a thought of Richele. But my words failed me in that moment. There were too many and for that reason perhaps too few. A cousin spoke. A family member spoke. Her college roommate spoke. A friend read a beautifully poignant poem. And her husband spoke, asking the congregation of loved ones to remember Richele for the person she truly was – an easy task for some but a challenge, of sorts, for others. Easy for those of us who knew the woman before the addiction. A challenge for those who never did.
The Richele I will remember is the teenage girl who picked up her best friend the morning of January 28th, 1996. It was my birthday and it was 6am. She woke me from my sleep with the sound of her horn blowing incessantly. She insisted that I get dressed and get in the car with her. Because Richele made the rules, I did. We spent that entire day celebrating my 16th birthday on an adventure she’d planned all for me.
I’ll remember the Richele who befriended an elderly man named Joe who lived in an old mill house on Kitson. Joe would buy us beer and for the majority of us, Joe was just that – the man who bought us beer. But not to Richele. To Richele he was a friend. Although he never knew her real name (Hunter, he called her) Richele would stop by Joe’s house on occasion simply to make sure he had food in his pantry. I’ll remember that Richele and the one who 18 years later attended Joe’s funeral when he died.
I’ll remember the Richele who lived in the dark paneled bedroom in Avondale where the waterbed took up most of the bedroom’s floor space. The Richele who you were embarrassed to go skating with because you wore the brown rental skates while Richele wore her very own pair of fancy speed skates. I’ll remember the Richele who never let me live down vomiting on the brand new carpet in her bedroom on Laguna Lane. Or the Richele who encouraged me to climb into the drop ceiling of the old Memorial Auditorium during a Bush – No Doubt – GooGoo Dolls concert.
I’ll remember the Richele I sat on rooftops with, ran through the woods with, and shared secrets with.
I’ll remember the Richele with the laugh and the smile. The girl who was unbreakable.
I still can’t believe she’s dead. All week I have struggled to remember each of the subtle nuances that were Richele but today has been different. Today her face has been clear in my mind. Her voice playing over and over in my head like a lucid dream. Her laugh almost audible if not for the persistent flashbacks of our childhood.
My heart aches, wishing I could have saved you, even if only from yourself. My mind wanders asking myself where things went awry. Where did life get so messed up that the one thing you were too smart to ever touch killed you? I’m angry at you for throwing it all away. How did the girl who always pushed me to be better fail? When did your carefree life become so carefree that you stopped loving yourself? How can the girl who always said she could do anything not say no? The unbreakable girl finally broke and my heart will ache for a lifetime.
I don’t know how we got here and I’m not sure it’s meant for me to understand. Frankly I’m not sure how much that even matters now. My hope is that your death will not be in vain. Your spirit was far too gracious for that. And while our friendship here on earth may have been cut short, the memories of your light and of the person you truly were, will live in my heart for a lifetime.
We will always have Taco Bell at 2am.
I love you, Richele.
Special thanks to Summer for a wonderful night of helping me drum up old memories. Love you!