One of my old friends from middle school and high school committed suicide last June. I haven't been able to write about it until now. I've been meaning to write about Donna since then, if only to put the best memories I have of her in one place.
The Border House already has an excellent eulogy of her by Riley MacLeod up, from this past July. That eulogy describes an older version of Donna that I unfortunately never got to know; although she and I stayed Facebook friends and kept in occasional contact via comments on each others' pages, I hadn't seen her since high school. I always figured we'd get back in touch "for real" someday, especially given our shared interests in video games and our big collection of progressive-minded and nerdy mutual friends, but it never happened. My childhood and teen memories of Donna are all I have now. So ... here they are.
Donna and I went to the same church together growing up, a Unitarian Universalist congregation. We didn't go to the same high school, but we were the same age, so we had Sunday school classes together. Unitarian Universalism according to our church was a pretty loosy-goosy agnosticism. Every week, we would talk about the Spirit of Life by saying "we are gathered here to celebrate the rapture, the sadness, and the mystery of this gift". This sentence more or less encapsulates the spirituality that I identify with to this day, insofar as I identify with any religion at all. I remember that phrase -- the rapture, the sadness, the mystery -- even though I haven't been to church in years.
I didn't know Donna as well in the early youth group years. She was the class clown, with vibrant red hair and a killer sense for dick jokes; she ran with the other two funny people from our year, leading the trio in both jokes and charm.
I was quiet, shy, and anxious. I was too embarrassed to admit to everyone else that my family never watched any TV, that I didn't even enjoy TV, I also didn't enjoy movies, and I therefore didn't understand anybody else's cultural references. I gamed a little bit, but I didn't identify as a gamer until much later in life (I didn't talk to enough other people until late high school to know "gamer" was even a thing, to be honest). For most of my childhood and teen years, the main activities I did were reading and writing. I kept to myself and didn't socialize much, despite being envious of the "class clown" types. Eventually I learned that adopting a kind of Daria persona would win me some laughs of my own, but I didn't figure that out until high school, either. I definitely didn't figure out how to deal well with larger events and parties (let alone basic get-togethers like Sunday school or youth group meetings) until I was about 22 or so.
Anyway, everybody in my year had to take a sexual education class at church. Public schools offered one, but most kids' progressive UU parents preferred us to take the one via the church, which was called OWL (Our Whole Lives). Taking OWL allowed me to opt out of the health class offered by my public school, but that didn't feel like a privilege at the time because I still had to take sex education either way. If anything, it made me feel less normal to take the church class instead of the health class. That said, I'm now very glad I took the class at the church for a variety of reasons that will become obvious.
I'd like to say we sarcastic teens all came up with clever innuendo about the name "OWL", but mostly we just made hooting noises and felt uncomfortable. No one wanted to be there; we were 13 and acne-riddled and as ashamed of our bodies as one might expect. But the best part of the class was always, always Donna and her two best friends (who I'll call R and J).
Back then, Donna didn't go by Donna. She didn't use a feminine pronoun, either. Gender is fluid, even over a single lifetime, but I think Donna had a sense pretty early on that she preferred femininity. I remember her telling people multiple times, "I'm a lesbian trapped in a man's body!" I never understood the joke, although I laughed because everyone else laughed. Years later, we all realized Donna hadn't been joking ... or, at least, not joking in the way that we thought. As soon as I saw her uploading Facebook pictures of herself with long hair and mini-dresses, I thought, well, that makes sense. She did *say* she was a lesbian, that whole time.
The OWL curriculum included a lot of beautifully rendered drawings -- not photographs, but drawings -- of naked people of all shapes and sizes. Mostly the naked people would be doing non-naked-person activities like playing basketball. I can still remember Donna's open crows of laughter at this. The sex-positive, free love, swinging '60s-style curriculum was likely good for all of our sensibilities later in life, but it was definitely hilarious to our 13-year-old confused selves. Donna was always the first to laugh or break the quiet for the rest of us.
OWL had one day in which we could participate in skits with provided roles; each skit involved a couple discussing sex. This terrified me. Not because I didn't love acting -- I did, actually! even as a shy kid! -- but because the prospect of talking about sex in front of my peers felt too embarrassing to consider. Donna, however, was another story. She loved sex jokes. Technically, OWL wasn't supposed to be about jokes, but all bets were off with Donna.
At the beginning of that class, the teachers read skit descriptions aloud and invited students to volunteer which ones they wanted to act out. One of the skits involved a love triangle situation; it may have even involved an open relationship and a discussion of protection and/or terms (as I keep saying, OWL was very progressive). Immediately, Donna noticed that none of the names in any of the skits were gender-specific. I don't remember all of the names, but I know one of them was "Sandy" -- just, to give an idea of what she meant. Donna volunteered herself and R and J for the three-person love triangle skit.
I have no idea what this skit was supposed to teach the class. The only thing I can remember was our three class clowns *destroying* us with jokes. We were clutching our stomachs with laughter as Donna slammed in and out of the room in her personal portrayal of Sandy's jealous rage. (If I recall, J and R eventually broke character and just let Donna spin her wheels because neither of them could even keep up with what was happening.) I think she may have adopted some kind of Southern accent. It was exactly the kind of tension breakage that a room full of awkward, anxious teens needed, and even our teachers were hiding smirks by the end. No one learned a damn thing about communication in relationships that day, but we probably learned something valuable about ... uh ... never mind. We learned nothing. It was amazing.
Eventually, Donna and I actually became friends. I was a hard person to be friends with because I was so shy, but Donna went out of her way to start including me in conversations at OWL and eventually at youth group meetings. My older sister attended youth group as well, and being the more socially capable and rambunctious of us both, she became "the popular one" with Donna, R, J, and the rest of our group. In spite of the fact that I often felt overshadowed by my sister and by other more popular or conventionally attractive people around me, Donna reassured me that she still wanted me around.
I admired Donna and eventually I became better friends with R and J as a result of her kindness and effors to include me. Youth group was one of the very few social interactions that I had at that time. I had a couple other friends who lived very far away who I talked to online, and I had a handful of acquaintances at school who I didn't see much of outside of the lunchroom and classes, but that was it. I spent almost all of my free time in high school talking online or on the phone to my long-distance friends. Youth group was one of the only highly unstructured social activities that I did on a regular basis, if not the only one ever.
The internet was my true home, though, especially once everybody in youth group traded AIM screen-names; finally I could have actual conversations with Donna and everybody else without being too paralyzed to talk. (We all got LiveJournals, too; remember the late 90s and early aughts? Good times!) This was the social interaction I could do best, and still is.
Donna and I had many conversations online during that time, all of which I wish I still had, but I don't anymore. Eventually, I realized that she was actually flirting with me. She sent me this song and said it made her think of me (which manages to sum up Donna's perfect blend of both sexiness and hilarity), and a few nights later, she told me that she had a crush on me and wanted to actually go on a date. I told her the feeling was mutual (are you surprised? Have you been paying any attention while reading this story?) ... and then my Dad stomped downstairs and told me I had been on the internet too long and flipped off the family computer's power switch. Immediately after my AIM true love confessions! Dad, how could you!!
I'm not sure Donna ever believed me that my sudden sign-off was because of my Dad and not because I had panicked (because, let's be honest, I was also panicking). Not long after our AIM conversation about our feelings, we participated in a youth group game of Capture the Flag. Donna and I wandered off by ourselves to sit on a bench behind the baseball field.
"I think this is the first time we've ever really been alone," she said to me, as soon as we sat down. I remember feeling so shy that I couldn't even look at her. I may have said something, but I have no idea what it was. Burbling noises?
I think she figured out, via my panicked non-response and inability to look at anything besides my hands in my lap, that I was too shy to be ready for a relationship yet -- even though she didn't say so then and she never brought it up after that. She just laughed, at the time, and told me jokes until I calmed down and then invited me to return to hanging out with the group. She didn't even try to hold my hand or say anything more; she just smiled kindly at me and continued to make me giggle until we were back with the group. I could tell I had messed up, but I wasn't sure how to fix any of it, and I knew that I had done my best. I think Donna knew that, too. I think she forgave me for it. I hope she did.
Donna included me during a time in my life when I needed it. She made me feel like I could be attractive, or interesting, or special, or cool, to someone someday -- to her, even, to someone as incredible as she was. I had no idea what she saw in me back then; I didn't see it myself. Even now, I'm not sure what she saw in awkward young me.
I wish I had done a better job of getting back in touch with her when I could. We stayed in contact on and off, but it was nothing major. She made an appearance in my Facebook wall comments after I wrote this ol' story about Dickwolves, coming down on my side -- the side that craves jokes that are funny as opposed to jokes that ostracize people. She stepped in to argue against the handful of FB friends of mine who turned out to be jerks, during that time.
Donna set a standard for me growing up not just in terms of what makes a joke actually funny as opposed to just offensive for no goddamn reason -- yes, even a sex joke. She also set a standard for how to include people, in general, just by being friendly and knowing how best to diffuse a situation and make a person feel comfortable.
I wish I had returned the kindness to her somehow, that I had been there for her when she needed me the most. I know a lot of people feel that way. I'm just one more. But I'm saying it, along with everybody else, now that I'm even remotely capable of writing it down. I wish I'd been able to do ... anything at all.
If you want a taste of the kind of humor that Donna deserves renown for creating, you can watch her read a short story and read a bit about it here. That video only barely encapsulates her. But it's something. It's what we have.