“Lissa is my very best friend mommy,” my two-year-old said sweetly as we pulled away from Chuckie Cheese after a play date lunch with her “bestie.”
“I know, honey.” I smiled at Michelle’s innocent devotion, thankful that she and Elissa had connected from the moment they first met—when her parents, Aaron and Stella, became business associates with my husband Paul and me.
Only a month apart in age, this little duo was immediately inseparable. The girls literally grew up together. They spent weeknights and often entire weekends together, met for weekly play dates, and even shared the same baby sitter when the four of us adults had business meetings (which was often). In fact, Stella and Aaron became our close friends too as our families melded together professionally and socially.
When the girls were close to celebrating their eleventh birthday, Michelle was excited to inform Lissa about her choice to have a slumber party. I smiled as I listened to Michelle tell her friend about the party plans on the phone. After an animated discussion, the tone shifted.
“So, what are you going to do for your birthday?” Michelle asked. There was a pause before I saw her jump up and squeal. “No way! You’re going to see Michael Jackson? Seriously? No kidding? Where at?”
I was busy doing laundry so I was only halfway paying attention, but from what I could gather from the ensuing conversation, Lissa’s grandparents had invited her to come see them in Knoxville, Kentucky that weekend and her grandfather had secured two tickets to the concert in nearby Lexington. Michael Jackson was all the craze and I could only imagine to what lengths her grandparents had gone in order to secure tickets.
“Your grandpa is totally cool!” I heard Michelle say. Then, the room got very quiet as I watched her brow furrow and a somber look cross her face. My antennae went up as I heard my daughter’s elation become concern. “Well, why don’t you tell your parents you don’t want to go?” I heard her say. They talked awhile longer before saying good-bye, and when I saw Michelle’s solemn face after she hung up, I was very concerned.
“What’s wrong honey?”
“Liss is going to visit her grandparents, she’s leaving tomorrow. Her Grandpa is taking her to a Michael Jackson concert.”
“That sounds like fun, sweetie. This isn’t the first time she’s gone to see her grandparents. Why does it bother you?”
“It’s how she sounded, Mom. It’s like she doesn’t want to go—not really. She said goodbye to me like it was the last time she was ever going to see me again.” My little girl looked up at me with very sad eyes. “What if something happens to her? Bad things can happen at concerts.” Her dread was overwhelming to me.
“Oh, honey, a lot of people go to concerts and nothing bad happens. But let’s pray for your friend, okay?” I held her small hands in mine and asked God to watch over Liss and her grandfather. I prayed they would have a wonderful time together and that she would soon come back home to her family. The prayer seemed to bring Michelle a bit of comfort, although the worry didn’t completely leave her face. I kissed the top of her head before she slowly walked away to her room.
A few nights later the phone rang in the middle of the night, interrupting our sleep. I listened to Paul talk—able to make out bits and pieces of the conversation. He sat up in bed as he hung up the phone and turned on the lamp.
“That was Aaron. Elissa and her grandfather were killed by a drunk driver earlier tonight…”
Oh, dear Lord, how are we going to tell Michelle?
“She knew, Paul. Michelle knew—she sensed something was going to happen. And so did Lissa, she didn’t want to go! She told Michelle that she didn’t want to go…and all I did was pray for them to have a great time.”
“And that’s all you could do. You did the right thing, you put them in God’s hands, honey,” Paul assured me.
That morning after breakfast, we broke the news to our two older daughters.
The younger one started to cry, but Michelle looked at us blankly, as if to say, “I knew something bad was going to happen.” Instead, she responded with a fierce stoicism that frightened me.
“Can I go to my room now?”
Paul and I were at a loss. Our children were facing issues far too complicated for their maturity levels. Our friends, Stella and Aaron were devastated. They all needed support and prayer and I needed guidance on what role I was to play in it all.
Its times like these that humans cannot lean on their own understanding. In situations so tragic we must rely on something greater than ourselves to get us through the pain. I cried out to God that day. I mean I really cried out to Him. What could I do? What could I say? There were just no words. After taking time to pray I felt something shift. It was supernatural. I felt strength. I felt grace. I felt peace. It was though I was walking in a cloud and it was way beyond my understanding. I realized I couldn’t do much but I could pray for my friends. And I could pray for my daughter. The power of prayer can never be overestimated.
We met our friends at the airport that next evening as they returned from Kentucky. I hugged Stella for the longest time. We didn’t say much. She managed a smile and thanked me for “just being there for them.” I remembered when the shoe was on the other foot. The time when just seven years earlier Stella was the one holding me up after we buried our newborn son.
True friends are like rocks. They provide a place to land when life feels like sinking sand. They are an ear when you just want to scream. They are a safe refuge when you need to complain and question. Friends offer coffee, encouragement and loving arms that hold us close. They help us pick up the pieces, clean out the closets, and engage us into conversations of heaven and angels.
It’s been many years since this tragedy touched all our lives. Although it was the catalyst that eventually brought Stella into a profound personal relationship with the Lord, it also left significant imprints on all of us.
It took a long time for Michelle to find herself again. But time has a way of healing, though the pain is never too far from the surface. I told Michelle once that nothing is lost in God and that even though we had to wave goodbye to Lissa, it wouldn’t be long until we would be waving hello again! “Goodbye isn’t forever, honey.” I said.
I watched her look out the window towards the clouds of heaven and whisper, “See you later Liss…I’ll never forget you.”