Lesson in Life: on Grief and Beauty
I can’t remember exactly what year it was. It might have been during my fifth grade. I had just returned with my family to Belgium, after a year of living in Goshen, Indiana.
What I do remember is that it had been a rainy, misty night. The following morning, we got the news: that night, my best friend’s sister, Aude, had been in a car hit by a drunk driver, and she was killed instantly.
At ten years of age, I did not know what to do with this information. I had never seen death up close. At seven, a classmate had drowned during her summer vacation at the beach. But somehow, it didn’t register as an acute loss. It was a little like she had gone on vacation, moved away, never to be seen again, and I accepted it as that.
But this was different. Fanchon and I had been good friends before my year away and, when I came back, we spent our school hours together and also found time after school to play. She lived on the other side of the hill in a big white stucco house that reminded me in some strange way of Bauhaus architecture. Situated on a quiet street, off of the main road, with its large windows and tower, it always seemed full of light to me. And once past her friendly, bearded father and her welcoming mother, we made our way to the room reserved for just the kids. Large, bright and with tall ceilings, it had at least one whole wall covered in chalkboard. For me, this room was a dream come true. Side tables and drawers were filled with anything that you might need to create. Papers of any size, colour and thickness, string, glue, scissors, tape, pencils and pens, rulers, chalk and more were at my fingertips. We would draw on the chalkboards or make our own fabrications, sitting at the long counter. And there was also a corner for music, with a music stand. When we walked into that room, it felt as though we might be able to make the world into anything we wanted. I often ran into my friend’s sister, Aude (or Coudou, as we knew her) and her brother, Thierry, as we spent time in that room.
When the news came of death on that morning, I had no model of what to do or how to be. I probably hugged my friend, Fanchon, and said I was sorry. But I didn’t know how to talk about it. All I could do was go through the motions: disbelief, tears, anger. And ask that perennial question: how could this happen? And let my solid world crumble, only to pick up the pieces as I could.
After Coudou’s death, Fanchon and I never again quite found our footing with each other. I was not able to break through my grief, or hers. And to this day, what I remember is Coudou’s beautiful smiling face, as I walked behind the hearse to the cemetery with hundreds of others, trying to understand the horrible sadness and hurt. The solemn rhythm of our feet made the silence speak while the sunlight caught the beauty of the thousands of flowers covering the hearse for that kilometer walk.
Now that I’m older, I still acutely feel the pains of our world, here in this town and elsewhere, and the whys are often still left unanswered. But I start each new day recommitting myself to focus on the good and the beauty and the positive so that when my end comes, I will have soaked in the best of humankind.