Tracey “Willy” Williams
3-17-1971 to 4-3-2013.
Psychology classifies flashbulb memories as detailed and vivid memories that are stored on one occasion and retained for a lifetime. April 3, 2013 will forever be my flashbulb memory.
I woke up that morning and checked Facebook, the awful habit I’m still stuck doing. I saw the first post… I can still remember which Facebook friend posted it. Refusing to believe it was true, I closed my Facebook app at the same time my best friend texted me: “Rachel!! What happened??” Questions filled my mind… with no answers. I opened Facebook again. This time I saw posts from a couple of my childhood teachers… it was then that I knew it was true. You were gone. No warning, no goodbye.
I woke my mom up next and, through shaking tears, I told her the news. She hugged me so tight… I thought she might crush me. But her tight squeeze still hurt less than my broken heart.
I somehow found the strength to get dressed and ready for my morning class. I poured myself some cereal and then just pushed the little pieces around the bowl with my spoon. I texted my big brother, the person I can always count on and confide in.
My best friend and I went to our morning class; I remember sitting in the classroom… four or five rows up from the front, in the middle of the row with two of my best friends. I don’t remember a single word our professor lectured. She sounded very much like the teacher in Charlie Brown.
I emailed the professors of my afternoon classes… I just couldn’t compose myself enough to go.
You see, for me, one of the hardest pieces of this sudden loss came later that evening. Two days prior, she had asked me to judge the high school writing contest, and we had made plans for her to stop by my house on April 3. She, of course, refused to let me come to her to get the documents. I remember, still numb and shocked from the day’s news, sitting on the couch in our front living room that evening. I watched out the window for hours… there was still a thin shred of hope that maybe, just maybe, it was all a lie and she would still pull up out front. I sat there for hours… watching and waiting. I kept checking Facebook… hundreds of posts filled my newsfeed all honoring the life and legacy of Willy. It was while I was sitting there, absolutely broken, that I received the first message that started putting the pieces of my heart back together.
Mrs. Jennings, my former high school teacher, was the first to message me. It was a beautiful message that filled me with enough strength to get up from the couch that evening. She has been one of my biggest pillars of support over the last three years. I will forever be grateful for our friendship that has emerged from our shared grief.
Nici, the mom of my former basketball player, was another phenomenal lady that got me through those first few months. She stayed up late into the night with me many nights, letting me talk and vent. She helped me study for my college finals when my focus was absent. She brought me my favorite food after I, somehow, finished the semester. She drove with me when I was ready to go past Willy’s house for the first time… a simple task that was unbearable for months.
The office staff at the high school that let me sit in Willy’s classroom the Monday after her death, the place where our friendship blossomed. Deena was literally my strength as she wrapped her arms around me and walked me down, what seemed like, a never ending hallway. I’ll never forget how Mrs. Gillen waited for me at the end of the hall after I left the classroom, arms open wide.
Doron, my youth pastor, who had never met me before but opened his office and his heart so many times over that first year. I’ll never forget when I first visited him in June 2013… I barely spoke but his words filled my broken spirit with a breath of fresh air and hope. It was his guidance and support that led me to choosing to be baptized in October 2013. I was so honored he was able to baptize me… he had spent hours with me in those first six months, over and over again showing me how good things can come from unbearable pain.
And finally, Rachel, Willy’s youngest child and only daughter. There is absolutely nothing I wouldn’t do to give this sweet girl back her mother, but, selfishly, I am so thankful for my friendship with Rachel that bloomed from our loss. I was nervous and apprehensive when I first went to talk with Rachel a few months after Willy’s death. However, that was the first afternoon that I felt like my heart was beating again since April 3rd. Rachel has her mother’s personality… her kind and caring heart is so full of pure and genuine love for others. On so many days in my grieving process, it has been Rachel’s strength that has carried me though to another day. She has her mother’s smile, too. Rachel lights up whatever room she enters and the spirits of those within it. Since I can’t bring her mother back, I will forever cherish and build my friendship with “Little Ray.” I’ll never stop cheering her on to the enormous success she is chasing in life. Good things really can come from darkness.
There are dozens and dozens of other people I could list… all equally important and treasured. My friends, family, and even strangers have picked me up on the hard days, laughed at shared memories on the good days, and have given me new pieces of Willy to hold on to as I continue to move forward in life.
As I waited for Willy to arrive at my doorstep on April 3, 2013, it was then that these people who loved both her and me, started arriving at my door instead. Some came right in, others knocked and waited for me to open the door and my heart, and still others stayed out there, silent like the old wooden rocking chair on my actual porch, waiting for me to come to them. Willy never made it to my doorstep that dreadful April day, but through my friendship with her, I have met and I will continue to meet hundreds of people who knew her and can share a little piece of her with me. And these pieces are helping my heart heal.
I am a changed person over the last three years. I have grown and matured in a magnificent way. I find myself looking for the positives in every frustrating situation. The “problems” I had three years ago are now like pea-sized pebbles on my path of life… I kick them over to the side or simply crush over them. I love deeper. I laugh more… and try to make others laugh more, too. I try to always be kind. I try to make others feel important and loved. I used to hate simply calling Willy my teacher… I didn’t want to confine her to a single box when she did so much more than teach me about verb tenses and comma usage. Now, though, I can see that Willy taught me all of these other things. She didn’t open a textbook and point them out to me. She didn’t keep me after class and teach me from the white board. She taught me through her actions. She truly was the greatest teacher, inside the classroom and out.
Three years have passed. It feels like yesterday, and it feels like a lifetime. I’ll forever miss her, and I’ll forever yearn for the day we meet again. But, until that day, I promise to shine bright and live like Willy.
To my dear Willy,
It took me over two years after losing you to find my new normal. It took me over two years to figure out how to flip my world back to right side up. Some days, it took every bit of strength I had to get out of bed and go about my daily routine. You will forever have the biggest, most profound impact on my life. You saw me though some of my toughest trials, and you took on my pain and heartbreak as if it were your own. You never grew angry with me when I sent too many Facebook messages or stopped by your classroom every single day. You always knew if I needed a patient, listening ear, an encouraging word of advice, or a tough-love moment. You pushed me so many times, even when I totally hated you for it, to work harder in my relationships with my parents. You pushed me to forgive my family and friends, even when they hurt me. You pushed me outside of my comfort zone over and over, always believing in my ability to find success. I wish you were here today to see how much I have kept working and pushing myself in all of those areas… I wish you were able to see how much I have grown in my relationships with my family. But, I know if you were here, I may not have grown in these ways. It was losing you that forced me to reevaluate my life and my relationships. If I could lose my favorite teacher, trusted confidant, dearest friend, and second mom, I could lose anyone else just as easily. I now try to approach every relationship, whether it’s with family, friends, or coworkers, with the unconditional love and unwavering support that you always showered upon me. Thank you for teaching me what it looks like to be a truly beautiful soul, an angel walking on Earth. I know I will never get to the level of beauty you exemplified with your life every single day, but, thanks to your constant example, you have given me something to strive towards. I love you still. I miss you always. I will see you again.