Friday, December 15, 2006

Honoring Tina
For reasons unbeknownst to me, I've been thinking a lot about a little girl I once knew back in my early childhood in Wisconsin. Tina was the youngest of four daughters, the eldest of whom had died before I ever knew them.
I was friends with Sandy, the sister who was a year or two older than me. And I knew Suzy, who was already grown (at least in my eyes, she was; could be she was only in high school, but I think she was older than that). At any rate, though Sandy was technically my friend, it is little Tina who fills my memories.

Tina was several years younger than I. Mostly I played with her because she was Sandy's little sister, and our moms made us play with her. I remember feeling most days rather ambivalent toward Tina. I found her annoying (much as Tavi finds Bella, Tucker finds Tavi, and Max finds Tuck). She cried a lot. She tattled on the littlest things and didn't even have the decency to try to hide the delight our punishments provided. She tagged along when we did not want to have that third wheel. Often, she played with us when Sandy wasn't even around, and I was playing with my good pal Bridget. Tina was still there.

And yet, even during those tender elementary school years, I felt an enormous amount of compassion for Tina. As mad as I would get at her, the feeling was never as intense as my pity. Looking back with the wisdom, however slight, I've gained over the past 3 decades, I realize now that a primary reason I resented playing with Tina is that hours spent with her were sorrowful. Being with Tina made me sad, and there was enough sadness inside my own home to deal with. I didn't want more. Yet more is what I got.

Tina was dying since the day I met her.

She never made it out of childhood, but died shortly after Christmas and before her tenth birthday. Or could it be her ninth? Some of the years of my childhood are incredibly blurry; I lose track of dates and times. Doesn't matter. Tina went into the hospital on Christmas day that year, and she was buried in a red and green plaid taffeta dress her mother had bought her as a gift and let her open on Christmas Eve. I didn't go to the funeral; Mom wouldn't let me. I wish she had. How I felt about it then, I don't remember. I do remember feeling horrendously guilty for all the things I could have done to make Tina's life a bit happier but didn't. I could have been kinder even when I didn't feel like it. I could have been more willing to share my Barbie dolls and their clothes. I could have done more. Always, there is more.

But I did sing to her, and we would sometimes spend hours playing LPs and 45s on my plastic record player. She loved music and had no one to share that passion with. I loved it too, and was always happy to turn her on to new musicians. A few years before Tina's kidney disease claimed her life, I took her up into my pink bedroom to play her a song I had fallen in love with, the Carpenter's hit release "Top of the World." It's a catchy, upbeat tune. Tina immediately fell in love with it too. Whenever we played together from that point on, she asked me to sing it to her. And that much, I did.

One day we were playing, and after singing her that much-requested song, she put her warm little hand (TIna was always, always warm) on my arm, paused her play, and said, "Make sure they play that at my funeral." All those years ago, and the memory of this moment still makes me cry. Perhaps she knew hers would not be a long life. I like to think she didn't, but really, she probably did.

I gave Tina that 45 record that day. She knew I loved it; I knew she loved it more. I told her to put it in a safe place so that when the time came, I would know where to find it. And after she died, I talked with her mom. I didn't really like the woman. She yelled a lot, seemed indifferent to Tina and her fate. I remember once that she and her husband ate lobster for dinner but gave Tina and Sandy bologna sandwiches. All the years I knew them, and that is what I remember most clearly. It made me so sad. It still does.

I realize now that Tina's mom was probably doing the best she could. She had already buried one daughter and knew that the early death of her baby was imminent. She didn't really live, I don't think. She coped. And since anger is the easiest emotion to resort to, that's what she lived with, what they all lived with.

Anyway, I told Tina's mom that Tina wanted "Top of the World" to be played at her funeral. "Sing it to me," she said. So I did:

Such a feelin's comin' over me
There is wonder in most everything I see
Not a cloud in the sky, got the sun in my eyes
And I won't be surprised if it's a dream

Everything I want the world to be
Is now comin' true, especially for me
And the reason is clear, it's because you are near
You're the nearest thing to heaven that I've seen

I'm on the top of the world
lookin' down on creation
and the only explanation I can find
Is the love that I've found
ever since you've been around
Your love's put me at the top of the world

Tina's mom cried. I did too. Tina got her wish. They played that song, along with "Seasons In the Sun," at her service. It was the perfect ending to a less-than-perfect life.

When I look back on Tina and my reluctant friendship with her, I see now that we served a purpose for one another. Though loving her brought sadness, our friendship was a gift to me because it gave me someone to take care of, to think of and take my mind off my own tribulations, of which there were plenty. And by showing her love, even if I did so grudgingly at times, I gave Tina a place of security and happiness that she could not find in her own family, who suffered alongside her day after day.

So it is nearly Christmas, and Tina lives on in my heart. Writing this helped me remember, honor her. My tears, well, they'll always be there. But as an adult, thoughts of Tina conjure up the final verse to her favorite song:

There is only one wish on my mind
When this day is through I hope that I will find
That tomorrow will be just the same for you and me
All I need will be mine if you are near

Spend some time remembering...the Front Porch will return the first week of January. Thanks so much for sticking with me through a year of change and evolution.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps because I knew Tina, too, this was the most touching of all your blogs this year, Beck. I'm having a hard time seeing my keys just now...


Judith K. Witherow said...

Beautiful touching story. May you and yours be touched with the same love now and forever.