I can still see that little red head bobbing after me. “Hey Em! Can I come with ya?”
“Sure,” I said. “I’m always happy for company.”
I was 14 or 15, and I had a paper route. Jesse was a little boy of about 7 or 8, with a shock of fiery red hair and a smiling face sprayed with freckles. He was always smiling. Always laughing.
We talked about everything– from the new lop-eared rabbit he wanted for his birthday, to who received the next paper. He enjoyed throwing the newspapers and trying to hit the porches in just the right spot. “Just you wait,” he’d tell me. “One day, I’ll get it. I just know it.”
When I went away to college, Jesse wrote me letters faithfully– always on wide-ruled notebook paper. Even though each letter was about 4 pages long, they usually contained only about 2 sentences because he wrote so big. I chuckle to remember it. He sent me pictures of his rabbit, and his dog. He sent me his own school picture– that sweet, boyish grin and all those freckles reminding me of home.
Eventually college was over, and I had a career and a family of my own. One day while I was cleaning out my dresser, I found a small packet of letters, all in a childish scrawl. I smiled as I re-read through the tragic worries we had shared– how could he possibly pick a name for his rabbit when we didn’t know if it was a boy or girl? Why did some rabbits have lop ears, and some not? When was I coming home to visit? His voice echoed to me across time. I was suddenly a homesick college freshman again– hundreds of miles from home in a new place with no friends. I remembered the cramping nerves in my stomach as I tried to face my fears, desperately homesick. I remembered the tears of recognition when I opened my mailbox and saw a familiar return address– sweet Pennsylvania, and everything I knew and loved. Reading those letters calmed my nerves. Just reading them, I could close my eyes and see the beautiful, green hills of home, and my bare feet and sunburned face. I could almost hear the creak of my parents’ screen door as it slammed shut on my way inside. I could see Jesse coming out of his little green house, grinning and waving at me to wait for him. Each letter was like a lifeline, reminding me of home.
I wrote Jesse to tell him I had found the letters. He still had mine, too, he said, although he had since given up raising rabbits. 😉 I found out that he was even cooler as an adult– he loved to cook in Le Creuset, just as I did, and he was a master gardener. He spent many careful evenings explaining to me how to properly care for orchids– a plant which I had always managed to put in the grave practically as soon as I brought the unfortunate things home. Some things hadn’t changed, though– his red hair and infectious smile were still exactly the same. Also unchanged was his loyal and kind heart and those sweet little freckles that reminded me so much of the little boy I remembered so well.
We said that one day, if I was ever lucky enough to have an orchid survive, that I would name it “Jesse,” in his honor. We talked about his making a trip to Virginia, one day soon, to see these orchids and visit the Le Creuset outlet. We smiled about old memories and looked forward to making new ones.
Tragically, Jesse passed away right before Easter. It was so sudden. So tragic. So unexpected. I don’t know how old he was, exactly– maybe 23 or 24. When I heard the news, I wept. I wept for a little boy who made the world a brighter place with his smile. I wept for a young man so full of promise– far too young to close the book just as his story began. I wept for the old memories I carry, and for the new memories that I never had a chance to make. I wept for his parents, who have been asked to do something that no parent should ever have to do– to bury their child. I wept for his family and friends, and all the animals he rescued and cared for. I wept for all those who loved him.
But most of all, I just wept for my friend.
I went upstairs and checked my orchids. My first one is dead, now. I had four. Now I have three. I took one away and looked solemnly at the empty spot. The beauty I was looking for there is now gone– just empty space where it used to be. It feels so strange. I took the pot with the dead orchid outside to the garage. It feels wrong to throw it away, somehow. Maybe sometime. But not today.
I looked at the others. Unlike my first one that I tried to grow on my own, the other 3 were ones that Jesse coached me through.
“You’ve got to get a really good orchid potting mix. The ladies like what they like!”
“How are ‘our’ orchids doing?”
“You will get this. I just know it. I can feel it. You will be successful, and I will be so proud!”
Jesse, I want you to know that the three remaining orchids are doing fine. I am doing everything that you told me to do– and they are thriving, thanks to your advice. The world is a little more beautiful because of you. But we always knew that.
I want you to know that I’ll never forget. I will live, and I will get on with the business of living, but I will never forget. Don’t blame me if, sometimes, when I’m deep in thought, I can hear little footsteps running after me. “Hey Em! Wait for me! Can I come with ya?” Don’t be surprised if sometimes, for no reason at all, a tear slips down my cheek as I think of it.
And don’t be surprised if every time I see an orchid– a tempestuous beauty that blooms in the most unlikely of places– I think of you.
And wherever I am, and whatever I’m doing, I’ll stop for a moment. And I’ll just smile.
Rest in peace, my old friend.
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