I had met the bride, Madison, my freshman year in college. A group of us had decided to use the old train bridge near our campus as the place to celebrate our mutual friend’s twentieth birthday, and right before we began to sing to her, Madison arrived in a flurry of wrapping paper, cupcakes and citrus perfume. She was the most beautiful person I’d ever witnessed beyond the silver screen, and I was suddenly aware of how sweaty and disheveled I must look, squatting on the creosote boards composing the bridge while still in my practice clothes.
Despite the creosote boards and her pressed kakis, after we’d finished singing, “Happy Birthday,” Madison plopped down beside me and introduced herself. Within five minutes I’d forgotten that she actually had been on the silver screen and only returned to Kentucky after health complications revealed her need for a heart transplant; and once I realized that Madison was just like me (only far more graceful), I was able to be myself. We then talked and laughed while licking chocolate icing off of our fingers and staring up at the stars arching like a canopy over the bridge. As simple as that night was, from then on Madison and my friendship was established.
Taking a bite of an hors d'oeuvre, I shake away my nostalgic thoughts and watch Madison and Brent stand in front of the wedding cake table with their arms intertwined. Smiling, they take the ceremonial sip from the goblets while their eyes convey messages too private for anyone else to decode.
The rest of the reception is monopolized by Madison and Brent thanking leaving guests and discussing their future plans with those who will not leave. I am chatting with a fellow bridesmaid when Madison comes up and hugs me from behind, enveloping me in her citrus scent and satin. Although I turn to embrace her, I do not understand the poignancy of the moment; I do not realize that she has come to say goodbye.
I am swing dancing when somebody calls out that the bride and groom are about to depart. Abandoning my eight-year-old dance partner, I race barefoot for the door. In front of the clubhouse, Brent is helping Madison get her wedding dress into his Jeep. They are both laughing with their dark heads thrown back and teeth gleaming like pearls. The members of the camera crew swarm in for final shots, and they are not the only ones. Each of us are hoping for another parting glance or word.
Brent nestles more material around Madison’s feet and carefully closes the door. I am watching her elated expression when our eyes suddenly lock. I muster up as much of a smile as I can and blow her a kiss. She pauses a moment and just watches me. Bringing a hand to her mouth, she presses a kiss into it and blows it out the window as Brent whisks her away.
This was the last time I ever saw Madison alive.
I wait until the surge of humanity leaves the church before venturing down the aisle. My feet feel leaden; it seems my body no longer remembers how to breathe. Beside where the coffin used to rest is the wedding portrait of Madison in the princess-style gown she wore only thirteen days before her sudden death from a heart attack at age twenty-one. In it, she smiles with her rose-bud lips closed, her almond shaped, amber-colored eyes penetrating the camera, her molasses waves cascading over the sequined bodice. Cradled in her arms is a tangle of blossoms. She is so alive, so full of happiness and hope. My throat begins to close, and my eyes are on fire. Half blinded with tears, I stalk down the aisle. Familiar faces -- friends of Madison and me -- swirl in and out of focus as I blink tears away. My friends attempt to abate my distress with comfort. I do not want comfort. I do not want anything but to have her back, to hug her tighter, to understand that this is truly goodbye.
Once Stealth Grief has gained its foothold, it is hard to shake free. Simple things like sorting through my CDs and coming across one her hand had titled will make me want to weep. I’ll check the mail, and there will be a letter saying I need to get my license renewed along with a flyer about organ donation; something that Madison -- a recipient of a heart transplant that gave her years of extra life -- was a huge advocate for. I’ll be in the park or at the mall, and I will see a girl (a woman, really) with Madison’s same long dark hair and elegant stride. Although it is impossible, I find myself imaging that it is her. And when I see her and realize that she is not Madison -- of course she is not Madison -- I still have to turn away to hide the disappointment in my eyes.
Every now and then, in the midst of this Stealth Grief, a ray of sunshine will beam down from the past into the window of my present. It only happens a few times a year, and it does not often coordinate with the times when I am missing Madison, but last night it did. I dreamt of her. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows that dreams of the deceased are such an inseparable amalgam of sorrow and joy; for when you awake, it is as if you’ve lost them all over again. Now, after four years and nine months, even my subconscious has become aware that she is truly gone, and in my dreams I will sometimes discuss this with Madison, which allows for an easier transition whenever I wake up.
But last night, in my dream, we didn't talk about death. We simply walked from the Bennett Building where we’d taken our English major courses down toward the train bridge where we’d first met. The passage of time had not tainted her, as it never will; Madison's smile was just as captivating, her hair and eyes just as molasses-brown. She put her arm around my shoulders, and I swear I could almost feel its warmth and weight. I wish I could’ve written down everything that we said, for the evanescence of the dream causes it to escape me now. But what I do remember is how happy we were in that window of borrowed time, and when I awoke -- although I knew Madison was still gone -- I couldn’t help smiling at that merciful remembrance of her.
In loving memory of J. Madison Wright-Morris: July 29, 1984 to July 21, 2006
For information about how you can sign up as an organ and tissue donor and help someone like Madison, you can visit this link. Thank you.