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Lovely Sheila

The other day, Jonah's dad, Adam, stopped by the house, hoping to corral Jonah into a day trip to southern Illinois to scout for mineral crystals.

“Really,” Adam said, hoping to pique Jonah’s interest, “we should be heading out to Utah to check out the copper mines.” Jonah nodded absently, wandering off to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, still half-asleep.

Adam continued musing about potential travel plans after Jonah left the room. But suddenly, our conversation took a strange turn. He began talking about benzos, a drug category about which I know almost nothing.

“Yeah,” Adam said, as if we had been following this line of conversation all along. “Benzos are one of the drugs that can kill you when you’re going through withdrawal. Supposedly, heroin withdrawal is painful, but can’t kill ya. Withdrawing from alcohol and benzos can.”

Whoa! I thought. What just happened? “Why are we talking about this?” I asked.

“I was just thinking about Aidan,” Adam said.

“Aidan? What happened to Aidan?” Now I could see the dots connect: Utah, where Adam’s childhood friend, Dan, and his lovely wife, Sheila, lived. Somewhere outside of Moab, if I remembered correctly. They had a son, Aidan.

“Benzos,” Adam intoned, flatly.

“What? What do you mean?” I asked stupidly. I knew what he meant. I didn’t want to know what he meant.

Adam came out with it. “Dan and Sheila lost their son about a month ago. I think he was into some pretty bad stuff.”

I couldn’t speak. Without looking for her, in my mind I saw Sheila standing next to me at the Broadway Oyster Bar, on the patio, with stars twinkling in the sky over our heads. It was a warm night. Sheila wore a sleeveless turquoise cotton dress. I heard her singing along with the band, Jake’s Leg. They played a Grateful Dead tune, which was their thing. It was not a tune I knew. She sang every word in her delicate voice.

Lovely Sheila, who was so kind and amicable in social situations I wondered if she didn’t have opinions of her own, rotated side-to-side, nearly spinning in place. Head tipped back, eyes closed, her silky black hair, cut shoulder length and parted in the middle, swirled around her head like a curtain. Truly, like a curtain, a cliché’d phrase if ever there was one, but which is the only phrase able to describe how magnificently her sheet of hair spun, parting on the downbeat to reveal her tranquil face. She looked almost as if she were praying. I continued looking at her, so mesmerized by her movements. Sheila opened her eyes suddenly and saw me staring at her. Her face changed into a smile, and she kept on going.

I feel like I met Sheila in that moment. She was the same, of course, but I hadn’t yet found my way to appreciate her. I had never disliked her, certainly. Actually, I looked forward to spending time with her. But I’d often wondered if there was anyone home inside that pretty head of hers. Coming from my place of intransigent self-protection, I judged her gentle nature and willingness to get along in the group as weakness rather than as the social agility it was. Sheila was comfortable going with the flow because she liked herself. You can’t “lose” in life if what you prize most is always with you.

Unfortunately, I haven’t grown closer to Sheila over the years. When Adam and I split, our extended families, including childhood family friends, drifted back toward the one of us they knew first, as often happens. That night at the Broadway Oyster Bar took place almost twenty-five years ago, long before the internet made it easy to stay in touch with anyone.

Adam spoke, bringing me back to the table. “I don’t know any of the details.”

“That’s okay,” I replied. “I don’t really need to know.”

His phone rang and he excused himself from the table. While he was up, I ran downstairs to grab a piece of stationery and an envelope. Through tears, I drafted a brief letter of sympathy.

“Dear Dan and Sheila,” I began. “I know it’s been a long time since last we were in contact. My heart is breaking for you. Please accept my condolences for your tragic loss.”

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