I moved to Davison from Lapeer in the summer, just before starting 5th grade.
The transition was rough.
I was in an awkward stage, to say the least. I had bucked teeth and giant freckles on my cheeks.
My dad taught at Gates — the same school where I was enrolled, just across the hall, and was kind of the discipline guy for the school.
And oh yeah – my last name was Flowers.
All of this, plus being the new kid, put me in a prime position to be the butt of a lot of jokes that year, and for several years afterwards.
Sandi Alt was in my class that year.
Sandi was not only not mean to me, Sandi was sweet.
Sandi always treated me kindly and with respect.
I cannot say Sandi and I became best friends that year, but I can say that I felt safe around her. I trusted her.
She and a small handful of people (Kim VanSlyke, Daryl Berryman, a few others) were people I knew I could be around without being made fun of.
Jr. high was even worse.
Not only was I still being picked on, but I was starting to believe the things that were being said to me. They were becoming my self-concept.
Sandi was a musical person and joined choir, as did I. She was also in band, as was I.
Our paths seemed to cross constantly and I came to develop deep affection for her. I loved her spirit.
What’s more, I knew Sandi loved me.
When I was around Sandi, there were never harsh words. Sandi saw me, and in doing so, helped me keep a hold on a proper view of myself.
Moving into high school we continued to be in band and choir together.
Both experiences became more intense, as bonding between band and choir students happens in a way that is uncharacteristic of students in regular academic classes.
Band and choir kids are a “cohort” group. They join band and/or choir (or orchestra), and move through those classes together year after year after year.
They see each other in class.
They eat lunch together.
They hang around during rehearsals after school.
They sing/play together in special ensembles.
They date each other (and sometimes — as in my case — marry each other).
They hang out backstage during musical rehearsals and performances.
They ride on buses together to go to this performance and that.
Glee is a popular TV show, but it doesn’t at all capture the intensity of the bonding experience that actually takes place between kids who love music and love one another, whose lives are centered largely around both, and who spend the majority of even their social hours together doing things involving music. I guess sports and other things are the same in many ways.
I don’t remember what year it was (I think our sophomore year), but there was a specific moment I was talking to Sandi in the choir room and realized that no matter where our lives took us, no matter how far apart we might end up, I was always going to care about her and always going to consider her a special friend.
That’s exactly what happened.
Life took us in different directions.
I lost touch with her for periods of time, but always considered her one of my favorite people and actually felt a bit protective of her.
I have never had a sister, but I imagine if I did it might feel quite a bit like the way I always felt about Sandi. I even remember telling her exactly this at that moment in high school when I knew she’d always be special to me.
In a way, Sandi was one of the most fragile people I ever knew.
It was a running joke that every year Sandi would faint in the summer heat during marching band camp, at least once. It’s just how she was wired.
Every time, of course, friends would worry and run to help her, but she always got up and just kept going.
She was a tender and sensitive soul — there was a vulnerability to her which was sweet and special.
And as she got older, life would call on her one too many times to show the strength that was always just under the surface of that sweet fragility.
I kept up with Sandi through other friends from school who maintained more contact with her. I always “pulled” for her and wanted the best for her. In times when she wasn’t accepting the best for herself (don’t we all have those times?), I always worried for her and hoped to see things improve.
And things would improve.
She met and married a great guy and had a beautiful baby girl.
Then after just four or five years of marriage, her husband was killed in a car accident on Valentine’s Day. Sandi plowed through. What else can one do?
A couple of years later she met another great guy and they moved to another city and opened a restaurant. They had a baby together — Sandi’s second girl.
Shortly after, Sandi was diagnosed with cancer. Initially her prognosis was good — she told me her chance of full recovery early on was about 80%.
But it was not to be.
Sandi and her fiancée had gotten engaged quite a while ago but had delayed getting married in hopes that she would recover enough to be able to enjoy a nice honeymoon. But a couple of weeks ago she went into the hospital with an infection.
She was put on antibiotics and sent home, but returned to the hospital shortly after with breathing problems.
She never left the hospital after that.
Nurses on the floor took up a collection among themselves, which paid for a wedding dress, and for someone to come in and do her hair and makeup.
This past Tuesday, Sandi married Steve in the chapel at the hospital in a small ceremony.
They were married for not quite three days.
Sandi passed this morning at around 6:00.
I’m so glad I went to that wedding, and so glad I got a chance to go to Sandi’s room afterwards and say some things to her.
Sandi (I believe a bit facetiously) asked, “Please move me at least to the top 1/3 of your prayer list.” I said “I assure you, sweetie, you’re a LOT higher than that.”
What does one say to a friend when they know it will be the last goodbye? As hard as Sandi was fighting, it was nearly certain that the end was near.
I had rehearsed for days what I would say to her if I saw her and had the chance, and nothing had come to mind.
When the time came for us to go home, and I had a chance to speak to her one last time, I just sat down and took her hand.
I said, “I have so many wonderful memories in my life. And you are in so many of them.”
At that, Sandi’s head, which had been drooping with fatigue, raised up, and our eyes locked. I couldn’t stop the tears from coming, but said to her, “Thank you. I will love you forever.”
And so I will.
I have thought a thousand times about those last words.
There are other things I wish I’d have said. I even thought about going back up to see her so I could say them.
But isn’t that the human struggle? No moment is ever perfect. There is never a time when we can quite “get it right.” There is no magic phrase, no perfect combination of words, to summarize a person’s impact on us.
The last time I ever talked to Sandi — though tragic and sad — was kind of like all the other times I talked to her. I did the best I could to say what was on my mind and heart.
I could have done better. But I could have done worse.
As “big” as the occasion was, it was nonetheless just another moment in Sandi’s (and my) collection of moments.
What matters is that I went, and I got to tell Sandi one more time the only thing that has ever really mattered, which is that she was always dear to me and I will always love her.
So Sandi, for the kindness you always showed me right from the beginning,
for the way you could play a mean piano, which so few people can do nowadays,
for the way you so often couldn’t remain vertical all the way through a band practice in the hot sun,
for your birthday that is on the same day as my mom’s so I have never once failed to think of you on July 27th in 31 years,
for the look on your face when I won a VCR on the radio years ago and gave it to you,
for the notes we wrote each other back and forth in high school (okay, Jr. high and grade school too),
for your sweet spirit,
for your gentleness and kindness and love of life,
for making sure I found out that you expected me to be at visitation when Jim died (I’d have been no place else, but this confirmed again that the feeling was mutual),
for the beautiful baby girls you had to leave behind,
for shared memories of band and choir and musicals and Bob Longfield and Sally Bird,
for marching band shows in the hottest heat and the coldest cold,
for being gracious when we both ran for drum major of the band and I beat you,
for bearing down and just supporting and helping me all that year (you probably would have done a way better job),
for your bravery,
for the too-few times over the years when I got to see you and we were able to catch up,
for 31 years of being far more special to me than our occasional contacts would indicate,
for heartbroken family and friends who are dotting the whole country right now in the wake of your loss,
I guess this blog entry is a way of scribbling in the cement the only words I can think of that really matter now.
“Sandi was here. I love you, Sandi. Thank you for the gift of your life.”