I can’t believe it’s been 18 years already since my best friend and her family left this planet as a result of one of Levittown’s most tragic housefires in history. Every year around this time, I feel a sense of emptiness, knowing one of my closest friends isn’t here to partake in my crazy Disney stories or my adventures with Bill over coffee, nor would she ever be my roommate as we became 20-somethings going to college.
It all started back in 1997 when I entered the 5th grade in an all new school. For the first two or three days, I didn’t speak to anyone. Until Stephanie came along with my other friend Nicole in tow. We became sisters almost instantly.
We spent our summers house hopping for slumber parties, blasting NSYNC and swooning over Leonardo DiCaprio. We did makeovers on ourselves and even my dad and spent many nights in our little Wal-Mart pools. We spent recess hiding from Larry, the nerdy creeper kid with tight sweatpants and enough 25 cent engagement rings to build his own polygamist cult army of sister wives and having arguments as to whether Tweety Bird is a male or female. Life was simple back then.
Our trio became a duo when Nicole moved upon entering middle school, and despite us being in different teaching teams that ruined our schedules from ever syncing, we always made the most of it in lunch and after school. And we always had our weekend slumber parties and any birthday parties we went to.
The last time I saw her was at my 13th birthday party as she and Nicole stopped me from wasting my first kiss on Sam Baker, my first true love. As we were about to lock lips, with me caressing his curly ginger locks, the girls and my baby cousons came wirh tomatos they picked fron my dad’s garden, throwing them at him, screaming “Sam’s got stinky breath!” and “Don’t do it, it’s a trap!”
I was pissed at her for a few days after and just as we were able to make amends and plan our next weekend adventure to a local skating rink, the unthinkable happened.
As I was getting ready for school, I saw my mom watching the news crying.
“Jackweed, I think Stephanie is gone.”
As I sat there watching the news, I became sucked into the continuing coverage of a mattress fire taking down a home, taking a mother and three girls with her, one being severely special needs.
“It’s not her!” I said in relief. I knew her family quite well and that Kimmy was her one and only sister who, despite some learning disabilities, was perfectly fine, unlike the sister on the news being described as having Cerebral Palsy.
Once I got to school, kids were a buzz, talking about the fire with Stephanie’s name being dropped. One kid who has a dad on the firefighting team was talking about how they found the bodies. Real classy. I swear, if it weren’t for the bell ringing for homeroom, I would of bitchslapped him.
The morning announcements came on like normal, lunch menu, sports news, and the Pledge of Allegiance typical annoucement banter. Until the principal came on and confirmed the gossup.
My best friend was gone. And she wasn’t coming back.
I had so many emotions running through my head. I ran out of the school, scooped up by my math teacher who carried me to the office since I wasn’t able to walk and called my parents. I was one of the first to go home.
My parents drove me to Stephanie’s and the place was swarmed with news crews, a roadside memorial, and a few firemen still taking care of hot spots. I felt numb looking at it all. It was all true. A nightmare I wish I could wake up from. It’s the day I gave up on God. I prayed for a best friend and I found her. And He took her away.
As the week wound down, Nicole and I sat in the church basement during the funeral trying to calm ourselves down and I was finally filled in on “the other sister” and how Stephanie and Kimmy wanted so bad to have a normal childhood that the idea of introducing their severely disabled sister would ruin it. So her mother hid her in her bedroom upstairs, where I wasn’t allowed to go.
What I wouldn’t of given to meet her sister, a beautiful young lady I only met in pictures above the closed caskets named Caroline, a vibrant 21 year old with an infectious smile.
I know the feeling Stephanie had when people would make fun of me and Kimmy, although we weren’t severely disabled as Caroline, you could tell Stephanie had a voice in standing up for people in trouble. Now I know where she got it from.
I miss her sass, the gallons of milk she would consume in hopes of growing bigger despite her being short, her amazing personality and can do attitude. This girl had it all.
It’s because of her, Nicole is now a firefighter outside of Philly and I became brave enough to end the stigma of the special needs kids in our school a few short months later running a homeroom club that was like an impromptu Best Buddies before they became a thing on the middle school level. It’s because of her that I didn’t kiss Stinky Breath Sam and got to share that special moment with Bill. It’s because of her, I learned to never underestimate somebody, for she be little, she is fierce.
A lot has changed in 18 years, but my love for her never will.