A Tribute to Lauren

Today marks the anniversary of the day our sweet Lauren died.  It’s been fourteen years and yet I feel her presence even as I write these words.  A few months ago I was at a writing workshop in Marietta, GA and I found myself in  a conversation with another attendee.  Within a minute or two we arrived at a simple, yet stunning connection…”Oh my gosh…you must be Lauren’s sister,” she said, almost with a gasp.

Her kids had been in the same grade with Lauren and my new friend went on to tell me what a shocking and devastating tragedy Lauren’s death had been for her children.  She continued by saying, “I never got to meet her but I’ve heard what an outstanding, truly outstanding girl she was.”  Her words of remembrance did not bring tears to my eyes as I reflected on our loss but great joy and pride as I thought, “Yep, that’s our girl!”  I  was so grateful to know that all these years later she is still missed, not just by us, but by countless others.  To know that even today strangers cross my path who were touched by this “outstanding” eighteen year old girl who was, who is, my sister.  To know that she touched so many so deeply in her short time here and that her sweet and gentle legacy lingers in their hearts and memories.

Thinking about what had been said in this “chance” meeting all these years later, I realized I’ve been blessed by many, many others who have expressed similar sentiments about Lauren.  And I can’t help but wonder to myself about the untold impact each of us can have on other people’s lives.  How we can use our lives to touch others in some way for the better or how we can just use up our time, or worse, do harm.  We each have the choice to use our lives in which ever way we chose and yet I wonder if most people ever see that they have a choice at all.

When someone dies, especially young, they tend to get elevated to angelic status in record speed.  As her sister, I’m sure it would be of no surprise for me to say that Lauren was perfect but, honestly, she was pretty close.  She was the most gentle creature I have ever come across.  I found a note that she wrote when we were going through her things as we cleaned out her dorm room to move them back home.  In the note she wrote about watching a homeless man rummaging through a dumpster outside of one of the dinning halls on campus and how she felt so badly, so sad, because she didn’t know what she could do to help him.  We were in college together then and I could picture, in my mind’s eye, as I read her note exactly where she had been sitting as she watched this outside of O’House.  She talked about what a pretty day it was, the sun shining and how it wasn’t right that someone should be so hungry that they had to eat garbage.  She talked about how lucky she was, how blessed.  She wrote the note just weeks before she died.  I remember thinking, through the shock of my loss, that such a sweet spirit was too good to be here with too gentle a heart to have to suffer seeing such things.  Her heart hurt for others and mine shattered as I realized just how much.

At times her death seems like a million years ago, another lifetime ago or a dream even.  Yes, sometimes she seems like a dream because it still seems too impossible that she ever could have left.  And other times it’s as if she’s right here with me, just a breath away, not forever frozen at eighteen years old but alive somehow, somewhere, living on, still with me.  I carry that part of Lauren within me everywhere I go.

My mom and I were talking the other day and she reminded me of something I’d forgotten about when she said, “I still can’t believe you were able to do that.”  She was talking about a memorial service at the University of Georgia where I spoke a week after Lauren’s death, just days after her funeral.  She had been a freshman and I was a junior at UGA at the time.  I had honestly forgotten I’d written and spoken those words all those years ago.  The first few months and even the first year after she was gone were a blur, punctuated only with moments of deep sorrow as I tried to piece myself back together again, as we each tried to patch the gaping hole inside ourselves and our family.  I found a copy of the speech I gave among various things I’d kept in a scrapbook I’d made all those years ago with photos, the program from her funeral, quotes and poems I’d found or been given and other keepsakes, wanting then to hold onto any piece of her that I could, knowing there wouldn’t be any more.   And as I read the words, my words, it brought me right back to the moment when I read them aloud to a room full of people with heavy hearts, wanting to give our family a voice, to give our love for her a voice, to speak for her.  The words still resonate true and yet they’re different.  They seem softer now.  I think that’s what time does.  The heart does not forget the record of love but when it is shattered, the jagged edges soften with time. In reading the words I could feel again the visceral pain of a former version of myself, the rawness of the wound that had now healed and re-healed many times over the last fourteen years into a soft, puffy scar deep within me.  But you do not forget.  Your soul remembers.

I haven’t shared these words since the day I first spoke them fourteen years ago, not in trying to lock them away but by moving forward, as we all must with the advancing march of time.  And yet, for some reason, I feel called to share these forgotten words today.  So I will trust that.  For those who knew and loved our sweet Lauren, please read on if you’d like to.  And for those of you who didn’t, I hope that by reading this we may all once again be reminded of the preciousness of life.  That we might choose to live each day by truly being alive.  That we might try to “love harder and live bolder™”, not out of fear that the other shoe may drop, that the “What ifs” of life might arrive on our door step or because of some cliche about life being short, but because we realize again that none of us are guaranteed tomorrow and there are never any regrets for having lived your dreams today.  All we have is right now.  So, whatever you’re waiting for, better timing, to become a better person or whatever is holding us back, just take what you have right now and DO IT!!  Because the truth is, while we’re waiting around for the life we want to arrive, it is passing us by.  It’s already here.  This is it.  So jump on in and GO FOR IT!

Lauren & her friend Beth

Here goes:

Alyssa’s Tribute to Lauren at the Wesley Foundation Memorial Service

University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

April 8, 1997

“When I was asked to speak today, at first it escaped me how I could possibly share my feelings for Lauren in a few words when memories of her flood my mind every minute.  I could not begin to hope to be able to explain to you how Lauren impacted my life and my family’s, but I’ve come to the point where I feel it’s important to say something on our behalf.  People have come to me time and time again throughout the last week and said, “I can’t even imagine…” and, to those people and everyone else, I hope you never have to.  I hope no one in this room ever has to feel that void and sheer numbness that literally brings you to your knees.  I just hope that by what I have written you can, just for a few minutes, imagine.

When she died a man somewhere lost a future wife.  An unborn child lost a mother.  But I lost a sister, a best friend and a soul mate.  The confusion and rush of the world didn’t miss a beat, yet when she died the world witnessed a living angel gracefully leave this world as gently as she entered it, leaving behind whispers of laughter, joy and beauty.

People grieve in different ways.  Some choose to mourn a loss while others choose to celebrate a life.  I choose to do both.  But the loss is not hers; it is mine and everyone she left behind.  Some knew Lauren a few years, others a few months or even days.  I knew and loved her every moment of her eighteen years.  She is meshed into the very fiber of my being, my soul.  Beyond the bond of sharing flesh and blood, I know the beauty and innocence of her heart and soul.  I know the fragileness and grace that made her beautiful. And I know the quietness and truth that made her innocent.  This is what I choose to celebrate.

People have asked me from time to time if I could sum up my feelings for her in a few words or sentences, but I don’t think written or spoken words can ever speak the words of the heart.  What I do know is that Lauren is a person you feel lucky just to have known and I am proud to say that I was such a big part of her life here and that she is such an enormous part of mine.  She touched my soul and the imprints of her presence are ingrained in my every thought and wish.  This is what I take comfort in.  I hope that everyone finds someone who moves their soul the way she moved mine and that people cherish the beautiful things in their lives as long as they can.  Lauren lingers in all of us and will be, as her headstone reads, “Forever loved and cherished as daughter, sister and friend.”

Why did I lose a sister when others lost a friend or an acquaintance?  I’m not sure.  Why did something that only happens to “other people” happen to my family?  I’m not sure of that either.  And why was such a bright light in the world taken when there seem to be some people just taking up space?  I don’t know.  The reasons aren’t really important.  There are no black and white answers.  What is important is the time we spent with Lauren and how we grow and learn from that now.”

It was as if Lauren spoke through me that day.  I like to think she did.   Although now I can hear the hint of sharpness underneath some of the words that were not hers but the residue of my own brokenness as it came through me.  I am thankful that none of those hard edges remain, just love.  In the end, there is only, and always, love.

Today we celebrate her life and all of those she touched.  Her spirit echoes still.

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  1. Lauren Fortney
    Posted August 14, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    alyssa, this is beautiful! i remember sitting next to her in coach lund’s class and always thinking how gentle and beautiful she was…on the inside and the outside.

    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      She was, wasn’t she. Yes, miss her sweet gentle presence everyday. And her laugh…oh her laugh! :) Smile just thinking about it. Thank you for your kind words and for thinking of her!

  2. Stacey Johnson Brown
    Posted March 27, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Alyssa…I remember sitting in that memorial service all those years ago and being so touched and impressed with your ability to speak so perfectly about your sister eve’n through all your pain and grief. Thank you for sharing this again. Some of your words from that service have been with me since.

  3. Jae
    Posted March 28, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    Alyssa, I remember hearing the news all those years ago and my heart bleeding for you and your family. We are all lucky to have known her during her time here with us. Lauren is such a beautiful spirit and you’ve captured her memory perfectly. I’m sure she’s smiling at you, beaming with pride. Well done.

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  1. […] that you did with Lauren and to imagine losing her was and is beyond my comprehension.  I remember your speech at Lauren’s memorial at Wesley and I remember crying with you over her passing.  And I […]

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