Five years ago, I had just started my new job as a reporter for The Desert Sun newspaper in Palm Springs. I'd been on the job about a week and a half, when my husband called my new office. An old friend of mine from Birmingham had called and left a very odd-sounding message, and it sounded ominous. I hadn't talked to that particular friend in months. Something was wrong, very wrong.
My first thought was that something had happened to one of our mutual friends. But I decided to wait until I got home that evening to call Mary Beth back. But an odd feeling nagged at me.
Then my father called my cell phone as I was driving home. As it turns out, the news was much worse than anything I could have dreamed up.
Those of you who have known me a long time have doubtlessly heard my stories of my old friend Kathy. We always called her Kathy Potts P-O-T-T-S, yes, actually spelling out her last name after the fact. Sometimes we just called her Potts P-O-T-T-S. The joke came from a friend's futile effort to give her name to the hostess at a restaurant that we often frequented in high school. As if Kathy wasn't already memorable enough, she got a very memorable nickname.
Man, she was a hoot. Trust me on this. She was hilarious, and headstrong, and warm, and so many other things. She and I knew each other as young children on a local swim team, but we really became a pair many years later at a Presbyterian youth conference when we nearly got thrown out of the worship choir together. And after that, we were sort of a team. I was two years older and arguably more serious and probably a touch more responsible. She was younger and more impetuous and far more charismatic. We balanced each other out. We had our own encyclopedia of inside jokes. We made jokes out of stupid things: Bryan Adams songs, quilts, knock-knock jokes and cake. We concocted a wonderful farcical tale of what we would do together in our old age; we planned to buy an old house and sit together on the front porch and make quilts and go to the local Shoney's for the early bird special and play bingo and attend our friends' funerals for fun. We stayed close all through college, despite attending different schools. The Rhodes crowd came to know her and love her, too. I even have photos of her attending Amy Hall's wedding with me and my college friends. She was another part of me.
We only began to grow apart much later, mostly because of distance. She stayed in Alabama. I moved to California. She got married, and I was a bridesmaid in her wedding, telling her that she was too skinny and cracking ridiculous jokes in the bride's room beforehand. She missed my wedding, desperately sick in her first trimester of pregnancy. She called me for the last time the night before I started my new job in Palm Springs, and we chatted about her new baby son Mason. She urged me to come home for a visit soon, saying she was desperate for me to meet Mason. Although I'd been nursing some resentment since she'd missed my wedding the previous fall, I could never hold a grudge of any size against her. I loved her. That was a precious conversation. Still, when I hung up the phone, I felt like something was just...off, and I never could really full articulate what.
I found out ten days later, driving along Highway 62 in the shimmering summer desert heat, when my father told me that Kathy had been found unconscious in her overturned SUV in a ravine miles and miles from home the night before. No one is quite sure how she got there or what exactly happened. The paramedics tried to rouse her, and got a very thready pulse back by the time they got her to the hospital. That afternoon, while I was probably eating lunch, Kathy's mom and husband had to make the unthinkable decision to let go. The machines were turned off. Kathy was gone.
Katharine Brook Potts Palmer was 27 years old. She had been married to John Palmer for 15 months. Her son Mason was four months old. She was survived by her husband and son, her mother Jane and her brother Mike.
I was 29 when Kathy died. I had known her for more than 20 years. Her family was like a second family to me. And yet, she had never met my husband David. That alone still astounds me, that two people who have played such a formational role in my life never met. And they will never meet. It did not seem real. I couldn't really grasp the knowledge that I'd never see her again, never hold my breath and grip the dashboard while she drove her car merrily and crazily along the road, never sing loudly and probably very off-key to all our favorite old songs (notably U2's "With or Without You"). She will never meet my son William or know that we moved back to Nashville. We never got to trade pregnancy war stories or compare anecdotes about our children as they grew up. We will never sit together on a big wide veranda in our golden years and make quilts or just gossip together. All the memories are mine alone now.
Today marks the fifth anniversary of her death. I still miss her every day. I sometimes find myself still melancholy about her death. I wonder about her son, how he's doing, how I can't even bear the thought that he will never know the woman who was his mother, who was my dear friend. I consider myself blessed each day that I get to spend with my own son. I ache that my friend never got to celebrate her son's first birthday or his second or any other. How weak it sounds to say "it is not fair," but it isn't.
I could spin tales about Kathy all day long, and it would still never really do her justice. I could tell you about how she was one of the biggest Alabama football fans to ever walk the face of the earth; she used to talk about legendary 'Bama Coach Paul Bear Bryant's funeral as if it was a funeral for a member of her own family (which in a way, it was). I could tell you about how she took a paintbrush full of paint one summer at camp and slapped in down the back of my head, covering my entire braid in paint. I could tell you how she lit up every room she walked into, amping up the energy level just by being there. It would never, ever be enough to convey what is in my heart and in my head.
I have a picture of the two of us together propped up on the desk here where I write. I was probably 17 or 18. It was taken at a friend's house, probably just on random night where we got a big group of church camp friends together and hung out. We look really happy to be hanging out together, and maybe a little bit mischievous, which is probably par for the course. We look like ourselves. That is how I remember us, remember her. In my head, I will also forever carry the image of her as a sweet-faced little girl in a swim cap and Green Valley racing suit. She will always be a part of me.