Today we finally hosted the gathering we’ve been dreading for the past five months. The one with Brooke’s friends from preschool, elementary, and middle school. From dance, Girl Scouts, Y-Guides, church, and all the wonderful people and families we’ve met along the way. Brooke’s Beach Cleanup was as perfect as anything marking the sudden death of a healthy sixth-grader could be. The weather was sunny and warm for an April morning. A task-force of amazing families provided refreshments, shade, signs, balloons… everything needed. So why were we dreading this? The answer is simple. Seeing all of Brooke’s friends, Brooke’s world… without Brooke…. made this real. And I still don’t want it to be real.
Everyone in purple, everyone gathered to remember this girl, my girl. It was breathtaking and heartbreaking at the same time. We purposely planned an outdoor event, one where people – especially children – could DO something rather than sit in a church and cry. The beach was Brooke’s favorite place and gathering there made us feel close to her. Community service, cleaning the beach, and raising money for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles was also something that would make her smile. Brooke was all about making a difference in the world. And, even without her physically present, she still is. Our plan is to do some type of community service and fundraiser every year. That’s how we will keep her spirit alive.
The event is already blurry to me as things like this usually are. As my boys napped, I decided to read through the guest book and The Brooke Book — an unbelievable undertaking by her friends to gather notes from students and faculty at both her school and dance studio. The things people wrote about my daughter were amazing. Things like how she brightened their day, how she always had a smile on her face, how she was so positive all the time. One teacher talked about how she helped a special needs boy who sat next to her – even though this boy had an aide – he looked to Brooke for help and she willingly gave it to him. This boy actually wrote Brooke a letter with the help of his mother, thanking her for being so kind.
That was my Brookie. My kind, sweet girl. I saw it in her, others saw it in her. But I wonder if she really saw it in herself? I wonder if she ever knew just how much she was loved? Middle school is a jungle. Many tweens – especially girls- think that being mean or acting cool is the only way to go. But Brooke was kind and she touched their lives. The thing is, she had no idea. She was hurt by the transition she saw happening as girls who once spoke to one another no longer would because they only spoke to the “popular” girls. She forged new friendships because she realized that friendship should be a two-way street, not a competition, not a way to make yourself look good while making someone else look bad.
That morning, before there was that sudden, unexpected burst in her brain, we talked about it. How sometimes, in the quest to be popular, friends may leave friends behind. I assured her that they would come back and that things would settle down. I didn’t speak unkindly about anyone who may have hurt her because I knew she hated it when I did that. I remember her looking at me, gratefully, for just listening and understanding. I think she appreciated that I could acknowledge that she could feel hurt, without blaming anyone or anything.
Then I read the beautiful things that people wrote not only about her, but to her. And I got to thinking about how the barriers come down — how it’s okay be honest — when there is no more risk. It’s “safe” to tell Brooke how special she was, because she’s no longer here. And, while I wish she would have known (although I hope she had a hunch) I wonder about classmates of hers who also are kind and wonderful and giving. Do they know? In a way, I hope they never do, because that means they will live a life free from the kind of tragedy that ultimately tells the truth.
Today I looked around and saw pure love. I saw moms and dads, toddlers and teens, coming together as a community to support our family as well as one another through this inconceivable tragic loss. Since we lost Brooke, I have seen the depths of grace and compassion from people I once only said, “Good Morning,” to. I’ve found friendships through this loss, but I wish I had found them without it.
So while we should never, ever have to fill out a book for an eleven-year-old girl or anyone for that matter, we should always think about what we might want to say in that book. How we might want to act to convey just how much someone means to us. Just how much we appreciate how they make us feel. Because Brooke did that every day of her life. And, while her life was tragically short, she made every moment count by making us all feel just a little bit better about ourselves. And that’s something that, if we pay it forward, will live forever.