Kocham cię, Jagoda.

Silently I got into the car.  I didn’t know where we were going, exactly, or what we would see when we got there. I didn’t know what we would do when we got there or how I would feel or what we would say.  Conversation was light as Kasia began the drive to the cemetery: we talked about what we had done that weekend. Catching up from a day of not seeing each other is a wonderful difference than trying to catch up from a year of absence. Our friendship is becoming more comfortable.

As we drive, I think about how I am feeling at the moment: nervous and not sure what to expect. Agnieszka’s words from yesterday resound in my mind: “It is good to not know what to expect. This is not natural. This is not how it should be.” The car pulls right into an alley way, near local gardens. Kasia drives on the dirt road and pulls into a parking spot in front of the cemetery gate.

As we get out of the car, Kasia is even quieter than I. “You don’t have to stay long, if you don’t want to,” I suggest gently.  She has been here before, and I will likely need more time than her. “I know.  But I need to do this too.” Kasia’s determination and presence are exactly what I need in this moment: I am not alone.

Before the entrance, there is a vendor selling candles and flowers.  “I didn’t think about this,” I ponder, “I did not ask about Polish customs for this sort of thing!” Luckily, Kasia reads my mind and instructs me that we should buy candles.  There are many beautiful ones to choose from, and Kasia and I both agree on the heart-shaped red one. It’s describes our friend perfectly. For a moment, I wonder what the significance is of the candles and then I think that if it is Polish tradition, nothing else matters because that is what our friend would have wanted us to do.  We each buy one and the man hands us matches to go with them.  I hold the blue bag with the red candles in my hand and we slowly cross the threshold into the cemetery.

As I walk past the tomb stones, candles, flowers, and other visitors, I annotate every moment in my mind, as if my mind is linked to some external computer that can record each moment, each thought for documentation. My words and my thoughts are profound, though manufactured. Somehow, telling the story in my mind is helping me stay one step removed – as if I’m merely an author rather than the participant.

“I’m not exactly sure where it is…” Kasia says quietly. I trust her instinct as we walk slowly on the gravel walkway. Suddenly, I see it: a solitary wooden cross between engraved head stones. On the cross is a white marker, beneath a silver crucifix, saying exactly what I don’t want to see: “Jagoda Pachota.” I stop and cannot move.  I look at the wooden box on which rests flowers, statues, and candles. “It’s… beautiful…” is all I can muster.

The blue bag with the red candles is still in my hand and I cannot take another step forward. Kasia steps in and does what I cannot do – she takes from me the candles and matches, lights them, hands one to me, and we both place them at the foot of the wooden marker. There is a bench to sit on, but Kasia and I choose to stand there, silently. Words have no meaning right now, there is only the stark reality that our dear friend, our dear sister, is gone.

“Seriously?! You’ve got to be kidding me. This cannot be real.” The situation seems too strange. Surely, I will see my young friend this week at camp! We will share a room and reminisce about this past year and we will hike and play games and talk long into the night. Her English will have improved even more and we will talk about her university exams and hopes and dreams for the future. I read the dates below her name: “22.11.1988 – 06.09.2008.” This is real. Not even twenty years old and life was taken from her. Not only was life taken from her, but life was burned from her. This is hard for me to grasp – as only part of the details of her death have been recently recounted to me. These details I cannot and don’t want to imagine.

“I will wait for you,” Kasia’s words break my thoughts. She quietly walks away and I finally sit down on this lonely bench, conveniently placed directly in front of the grave.  I wonder how many times her mother and father have sat at this same bench?  I wonder who has placed these candles and flowers and statues? I am reminded: I am not alone in my grief. After months of processing the death of my dear friend from the other side of the world, I now sit before the very tomb where she is buried. I weep. I weep hard. At first I am embarrassed as people walk by on their evening stroll – for the sun is just setting and it is a lovely evening to stroll through a cemetery. Then I am reminded of Jesus as he weeps for his friend Lazarus. “Oh, see how He loved him,” the onlookers observed.  My love for Jagoda was deeper than I knew and deeper than I can ever understand.

Through my tears, I thought of the lessons I have learned from such a dear young woman and I think of how I can endure the upcoming camp without her by my side. I realize that I hurt so terribly because I loved so much. This will not stop me from loving, I vow. I will love each of my campers this year, because I do not know how much time they, or I, have left on this earth.

I could not leave that bench. For once, I was near her. I was near those who loved her and near those that grieved her death more than I.  The truth and the reality was before me and I did not want to leave it. Not now, not for good. If I sat by her grave, somehow there would still be a connection. Then I looked down at my little red heart: just as the flame would burn in that red heart, so my memories and love for Jagoda would be in my heart. The love she had, the passion she had for the world, I will take and pass on. With a sense of purpose and meaning, I stood up from the bench and knelt down before the grave marker. With my hand on the corner of the wooden platform I whispered the words, “Kocham cię, Jagoda. I love you.”

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