From Chicken Soup for the Girlfriend's Soul

The Face of Hope

The first time I met Marlene, more than three decades ago, our family had just moved to a small valley rich in fishing, a wilderness populated by Norwegians and The Nuxalk Native Tribe. Marlene’s mother had been a mail-order bride from Germany, and they had moved to the valley a few years before.

Marlene was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. She had pale blonde hair and shy, sky-blue eyes. We were in the fourth grade when we met, and she sat beside me in class. Because our families were regarded as outsiders, not being Native or Norwegian, Marlene and I developed an instant camaraderie. We shared everything; everything in our hearts and in our minds, our secrets, our desires and our dreams.

We both married young, still teens. She married a Nuxalk Native Indian whose father was a famous grizzly bear guide. I married a Frenchman from the city. We both had daughters.

In time, Marlene and I both divorced. I moved out of the valley for several years, while Marlene stayed on in her little house by the river, a beautiful white woman living with the tribe her daughter, Phoebe, was born into.

When I moved back to the valley with my daughter, and Marlene and I hooked up again, becoming as inseparable as ever. We were like sisters, always there for one another, and, like sisters, we had our occasional squabbles, misunderstandings and jealousies, like when one snapped up the boyfriend the other one wanted. But we always made up.

Our daughters grew up to be friends, too, and spent many weekends together sharing their lives, the way Marlene and I shared ours.

When we finally went our separate ways, living in separate cities, we lost contact with each other. For a time it seemed the cord of friendship had weakened between us, but in reality, it just became buried under the load single working mothers face.

My daughter went on to college, and Marlene’s daughter dabbled in photography. I encouraged her to go into modeling because she was so stunning, just like her mother. But Phoebe was shy and sweet, and had the Native’s love for solitude and forests, and so declined the modeling offers that came her way.

I loved that girl like a second daughter, and as with my own daughter I encouraged her to follow her dreams. But her dreams proved to be short-lived.

A cold, dark chill gripped my insides as I stared into the California sunshine, with the smell of frying chicken cozily wafting through my small kitchen. My week-old wedding photo was still on the refrigerator, and my eyes wandered to it as I tried to assimilate the gross hideous thing coiling through the telephone wire. “It’s true,” my mother told me long-distance, “Phoebe is dead.”

Denial rang through me as my mother gave a sketchy outline of the murder the night before. I could almost taste Marlene’s despair as if it were my own, and I said a prayer for strength and wisdom as I dialed her number. Her wailing pierced my heart, as we clung in spirit to one another across thousands of miles. With a bereaved rage, I knew that two murders had been committed, not one. The bodily destruction of Phoebe, and the spiritual destruction of Marlene, her mother. My best friend.

“I’ll be there. Tomorrow.” I wept as the image of Phoebe filled my mind. Phoebe. Spectacularly beautiful, spectacularly sweet. I shut my eyes in a spasm of pain as I thought of my own daughter. How was it possible for my friend to bear such a monumental agony as this?

Marlene hung up the phone, and I went to tell my new husband that I was going to Canada the following day.

When I got off the plane in Vancouver, my sister and I drove to Marlene’s house on the island.

We were immediately enveloped by the scent of hundreds of flowers and the warm arms of Marlene and her sisters, as we all wept. This was a pain nobody was prepared for.

The day before the funeral, I went downstairs to Marlene’s office and with the gorgeous face of Phoebe before me—her photograph alive with joy and vibrant expectation—I wrote her eulogy.

The next day, Marlene and I clasped hands tightly as the funeral car bore us inexorably to the place of goodbye. Somehow, God gave me the strength to deliver the eulogy. I looked at my friend with sympathy that words could not convey. But too short was the saying of hello and good-bye to the life of someone so rare and sweet, someone who should never have left the Earth in such a violent way.

I stayed behind in the chapel after the service. So I was there to see Marlene, sobbing brokenly, throw herself upon her daughter’s coffin and beg her not to leave. That sheer grief, so stark and powerful and shattering, as Marlene clung to the coffin of Phoebe, weeping inconsolably, with her husband clinging to her, snapped the thin threads holding my own heart together. I thought of my only daughter, and the idea of losing her through strangulation at the hands of her estranged boyfriend, as Marlene had lost Phoebe, was too much to bear.

It took a long time for Marlene’s husband to pry her away from her only child whom she did not have the strength of mind or will to part with. But somehow, between us, we managed to get her home.

A few days later, Marlene and I pulled out three decades of photographs from her shelves. As we sat on the floor of her recreation room, we laughed and cried for hours over the years of our lives and the lives of our children, the pictures of youth and hope and strength. And the bond between us forged into steel.

There is a huge collage of Phoebe that Marlene put together shortly after her death. It chronicles her life and hangs on the wall of Marlene’s living room. On the mantel, an urn with Phoebe’s ashes, the badge of a mother’s pain, sits in the place of honor.

It is now two years after Phoebe’s death. Marlene still has a great task ahead of her. But it is a noble task that will enable her to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to keep going on, a task that has the power to rebuild her soul.

I have looked into the face of that task. It is the face of trust.

Phoebe’s son, Dylan, four years old now, his face sparkling with the shy smile of the mother he lost, the mother he told me was dancing with the angels, is the face of the future. The face of love. The face of Marlene’s greatest treasure. And the face of her hope.

Janet Hall Wigler

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