“I know this place like I know the calluses on my hands.”
― Brenda Sutton Rose,
To explain to an outsider about our little valley is nearly impossible. I’ve tried of late, hoping to capture it in words so that my daughters and boyfriend might understand. So they might understand why I wept for hours when I heard the news that one of us had been murdered. So they might understand why the death of our teacher caused us to cry out in pain, no, not yet.
Here are the facts. I grew up in a small town in southern Oregon. We call it the Illinois Valley because the Illinois River snakes around and through, but on a map it is Cave Junction, twenty minutes from the California border.
A woman I grew up with was murdered last week in her home in Eugene by a psycho who doesn’t deserve the ink on this paper. Her name was Athena. She was a mother, daughter, sister, friend. This is not her eulogy, but she was one of the good ones. She was loved.
Days earlier our beloved acting teacher passed away. We didn’t know until the day after we heard about Athena. His name was Rick Ferris. He was a son, father, grandfather, brother, friend. This is not his eulogy, but he was one of the good ones. He was loved.
They were loved by us. By the Valley Kids.
I try to explain it to my kids.
My town was so small, I say, that everyone knew everyone and there was nothing else but us. No internet. No cable television. No neighboring town. Just us. We were children together in this little logging town no one cared about, yet we cared fiercely for one another. We can tell you what road each of us lived on, what cars we drove, who loved who. We cheered for our football team that almost never won a homecoming game. We swam the river together. We met on dirt roads and built bonfires. At night we watched a billion stars dance across the sky.
The river spots are known by our nicknames: Six mile, Mars, The Forks, Small Falls.
Other schools in our district called us hicks, dummies, losers.
But we knew differently. We knew because our teachers made sure. The teachers who stayed. The ones who dedicated an entire career to the children of a place no one had ever heard of or cared to hear of, and because of this we knew we were important, not invisible like the rest of the world might have us believe. Rick Ferris was one of those teachers.
Now we’re scattered, blown away from our little town into adulthood. We grew up and moved on, had families of our own, jobs, mortgages, marriages, divorces, and remarriages. Some of us have lost children. Many have lost parents. Some of us are gone. And with each loss, we weep for one another even though we are mostly only in touch via social media. Because it isn’t as simple as, “an old friend that I keep up with through Facebook” passed away. When you’re from a place like our valley, we are kindred spirits for all time. We will always be Valley Kids. We will always be united against the world.
Then, there is the problem of time.
When I close my eyes, it is 1986 and I am in our high school cafeteria. It’s dinner break during dress rehearsal week for our school play. Athena is laughing, propped up against the orange wall that Mr. Ferris says is the color of baby poo. There’s the smell of Dairy Queen fries. Athena and I vow not to eat the fries. We’re on a diet. Mr. Ferris is perched on a ladder fiddling with a light. Journey is playing on someone’s boom box. We are innocent. Life is before us. We cannot imagine the tragedy that awaits.
And I wonder, as I type through my tears, how can it be now and they’re gone? Why? Why? Why?
I cannot know, of course. I understand this. The mystery of time, the loss of innocence, the pain of forced goodbyes is simply a matter of living. But I’m the type that tries to find meaning in all human experience and I suffer for it. I do know this, however. We must love with no thought of consequence or fear. Yes, we might have to say goodbye, but no love given or received is ever wasted.
Perhaps love is like a midnight sky seen from a porch in the middle of August, so vast and encompassing that it sustains us in our darkest moments. Perhaps, too, the stars that shine as brightly as our memories are a reminder that we must love one another while we can. Say the words you’re too shy to say. Tell your friends and family how much you love them, without expectation. Tell them what they mean to you now, not tomorrow. Reach out to that person you’ve lost touch with, but think of so often.
Love hard and fierce. Love like a Valley Kid.