Wake Up Call

A couple of weeks ago I got a call from a high school friend, Amanda, who wanted to catch up with me after we had been out of touch for several years. We talked about her teenage son and tween-aged daughter, her divorce and my growing toddler. Another life altering, sobering topic came up: our school friend Tisha had passed away in the spring of complications from chronic heart disease, apparently. She was probably 38 years old.

In school, we always knew Tisha had heart problems. She rarely took gym, played no sports, and had a huge scar on her thorax from a surgery to correct the problem. Despite being cursed with a faulty heart, she lived much longer than her doctors expected, and I think she had a couple of children. She certainly had more heart than me, because in high school, Tisha, who was African-American, also had a white boyfriend. He was a Jewish kid named Seth, who seemed to be a couple of years older than her. That relationship aligned with her mature, free-spirited outlook on life. He might have even been a freshman at college when they started “going together.” They didn’t seem to date like ordinary teenagers in our town; instead, they took these urbane bohemian outings to New York City. I envied her on this point, on having the nerve and the know-how to navigate the Big Apple and find her niche there. Talking about cafes, parks and mishaps on the subways gave Tisha an aura of sophistication, and I actually enjoyed hearing more about that stuff than how her relationship with Seth was progressing. She once related a funny story about a conversation between her and Seth. Although he was born Jewish, he believed in Jesus Christ, apparently. He said to her: “We’re waiting for a guy who already came and left!” Just think about the level of conversations they must have had about religion, culture, etc!

It didn’t surprise me that Tisha had a white boyfriend. It seemed like everything about Tisha was matter-of-fact, daring and defied the image of a frail, sickly girl. During a disagreement with our French teacher one day, Tisha abruptly asked her if she had ever read Human Relations. During Fantasy Day one year, our version of dressing up for Halloween, Tisha showed up dressed as a bride—on the wedding night. There was Tisha, marching down the halls in her white lingerie, garter belt and spiky heels. She wore spiky heels a lot, sometimes with black fishnet pantyhose. She told the most hilarious stories about her sisters, too. One of them always had a backup dress for formal occasions because the first dress always seemed to meet disaster, and another had a knack for committing accidental double entendres that came across as suggestive.

Tisha deserved a much, much longer life than her Creator permitted. We all went to a performing arts high school in Paterson, New Jersey, and ours was the first graduating class. We were full of more than our share of teenage bravado and supreme self-confidence. Local newspapers wrote occasional stories about us from our first day of school through graduation. People asked us if we were like the kids on “Fame,” doing Broadway-scale numbers in the school cafeteria. Tisha and I were writing majors, but her vivacity led her to try drama and music, too. She never complained about her illness, was extremely intelligent, savvy beyond her years about the interesting nuances in life that made her writing and her music really interesting. I’ve often thought about Tisha over the years. I expected someone so special, attuned to human nature, and devoted to savoring the delights of life and love, to be a novelist or director or something big.

Want to know the weirdest part about this news? Amanda told me that when she heard the news about Tisha, speculation soon ensued about who might be next. Whose life would be shortened because their body had finally given out from a lifelong struggle with illness? My name came up. Eeeek!

Well, I might not make it to old age—none of us knows when our time is up—but there are a few things I need to do while I’m here. People expect me to do more with my wit and insight into people’s behavior.  I share a lot of laughs with one of my neighborhood friends, and after a tear-filled, rib tickling session of picking apart the foibles of our fellow city folk, she will ask, “where is that book? I want to see chapters!” My brother, who has cut several reggae albums independently, says I should push myself to do more, and not settle for being an employee that cranks out words for my magazine and Web site. Maybe I’ll take their advice one day.

It’s really too bad that Tisha and I never kept in touch all those years after high school. I know she might have made a wonderful guest blogger for the Latte Café!

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