Audio of this story as I told it at Carapace, August 2011, can be found here.
Often times in life, we meet people along the way who leave a lasting impact on us. Sometimes it’s for things they do. Or don’t do. Or for the things they do to you. Sometimes it’s for the example they set.
When I was in high school, my father’s job led us to move back to a town we’d lived in before, Kingsport, TN. It was halfway through my junior year. As hard as it is to move that late in high school, you would think it would have been easier to move back to a place I’d already lived. In some ways it was. In others, it was every bit as hard.
One joyful part about it is that I got to know new people that I had not known before, somewhat in partial thanks to the large church we were serving in Kingsport 2.0.
The person I put at the top of this category was Beth Griffin. Beth was one of those ethereal creatures who was seemingly always happy. She could find the good side of anything.
I remember sitting in her lap after Bible Study one night – teenage girls have a unique way of sharing affection with each other before they become completely jaded – after I’d gotten a regrettable perm on my 17th birthday. I whined about how it took so much work to maintain (so much product!) and how it felt as though my hair would never be the same again.
Beth just smiled and said, “I like it. And besides, it doesn’t really matter. You always look pretty, and you’re absolutely beautiful on the inside.”
*Sigh* It was one of those moments that makes you zing. Though I remember at the time wondering why I couldn’t get a boy to say those words.
After we graduated, Beth went to Agnes Scott, a women’s college here in Atlanta. I really wanted to go there too for my own reasons. But life led me in a different direction, and since that was before the days of email and Facebook, we lost touch pretty quickly.
Time marches on.
We all graduated from college and moved out into the world in a variety of ways. Beth got an internship with the Yerkes Institute, which is an animal research center also based here in Atlanta. She’d always dreamed of working with primates.
I, on the other hand, graduated with my B.A. in English literature and women’s studies and proceeded to dive headlong into that existential funk that is a natural outcome of such majors and minors. If you didn’t want to go immediately into a master’s program in English, and you didn’t want to become a teacher, there weren’t a lot of options laid out before you.
Thus began a wandering path traveled by many in their early 20s. In the 2 years after I graduated from college, I lived at a camp, worked in a video store, acted in dinner theatre, moved to Blacksburg to work in a bar, temped, cleaned for wealthy people, and got fired from a substitute teaching job. It was not my finest period.
About six months after we graduated from college, when I was living part-time at camp and part-time at home, I came home one day to find my mom in the kitchen.
“I have some news for you,” she said. “Your friend, Beth, is quite sick.”
She explained that everyone on our old church’s network was talking about it. Apparently, when she was transporting a monkey cage from one counter to the other, a bit of “monkey matter” flipped up into Beth’s eye.
She wound up contracting Herpes B, something that is common amongst monkeys, but which, when transmitted to humans is nearly always fatal.
Still, given that she was only 22 and was an extraordinarily healthy person, we had a lot of hope that she would be able to fight it. In the coming weeks, we watched (most, from afar) as the paralysis slowly crept up her body all the way to her eyes. And then, it started to subside. We thought she was going to win. But, she didn’t.
It was a scandalous, national story as the issue of workplace safety swirled around her death. Protocol should have meant that Beth was asked to wear goggles in that milieu, but there was no protocol to protect her. It wasn’t the only time in my life where something in my personal life was also a national headline. I can tell you that it’s a very strange, double-vision kind of experience to see your friend on Dateline.
Time marches on – again.
I had moved to Blacksburg for no better reason than to try something different. I was working 4 jobs, and one of those was waitress in a nightclub. At about 2:30 in the morning, as I scrubbed a toilet that some co-ed had puked in, a bit of toilet water flipped up into my eye.
I can only describe this as one of those big, epiphany-like moments. In that instance, everything seemed to distill down to one little kernel of light, and I became one with the universe.
By the time she died in such an untimely way, Beth had danced in Japan and ridden her bike across Europe. She was using all her God-given intelligence and human-given education in the pursuit of knowledge and for the betterment of something she loved.
What if I got sick from this incident? What if I contracted some strange, foreign disease because I was cleaning toilets in a bar?
Not that there’s anything wrong with the janitorial profession – I have continued to have cleaning jobs on-and-off throughout my adulthood to support the bills – but I wasn’t in pursuit of anything greater. I was not using my intelligence, talent, or education for anything other than the internal struggle. Who was I to throw my life away when someone like Beth had hers cut tragically short?
When I came out of my light-kernel moment, I felt like the universe had just thwacked me on the back of the head. Six months later, I was in AmeriCorps. Which led to a full-time job with the YMCA. Which led me to grad school. Which led me to where I am today.
And, I just want to say that I’m so grateful for all those little moments in life that open up a new path, a new understanding. And I’m especially thankful for friends who have helped to light the way.
Just so you know, I’m not the only one that Beth’s passing affected. Her family and friends have established a foundation for the promotion of safety in scientific research. Well done.