Musings + Essays

Ladybird, Loss, and the Visitation.

By: Jen Shoop

Have you seen Lady Bird yet?  Mr. Magpie and I had mixed feelings.  On the one hand, the acting was incredible, heartfelt — and I rather liked the mutedness of the film, too: it portrayed, earnestly, that delicate time in a teenage girl’s life where she’s on the precipice of adulthood and feels that everything is both conspiring against and centered around her–but it did so through a looking glass.  It was as if the director, Greta Gerwig, was giving Lady Bird the space to act out teenage angst and emotion, but not without casting us sidelong, knowing glances.  “Ah, yes.  Teenagers,” Gerwig was saying.  And I nodded right along.

On the other hand, in the words of Mr. Magpie: “I feel like I’ve seen this movie twenty times already.”  And he’s right — how many bildungsroman have we encountered in our lifetimes?  And what new information or message or emotion did this coming-of-age tale in particular convey?  I come up short there.

But there were many tender, quiet truths in the movie that lingered.

“There are different ways to be sad,” cries Lady Bird, when her unbearable beau attempts to distract her from her very real emotions after she’s lost her virginity by telling her to think about the ongoing war in Iraq.  How often I have found myself vacillating between these two truths: that I am entitled to feel a certain way about a certain thing, and that I also shouldn’t feel that way about that certain thing because, in the grand scheme, my woes are petty, insignificant.  You know, the old “there are children in Africa…” line of thinking, which is not without its merits.  I’m also reminded of that great quote that Jenna Bush shared in her memoir (full review): “As teenagers, when we would come to [my mom] with teenager-sized problems, she always said: ‘I promise.  There are very, very few things worth worrying about.’  And she was right…she saw our anxieties for what they were: childlike.”

And yet.  When you are a teenager, everything that happens to you is amplified.  Amplified by life-stage (i.e., wanting desperately to be treated like an adult), by hormones, by the sheer fact that you’ve not yet had enough happen to you to parse the significant from the insignificant.

The night after I watched Lady Bird, I had a vivid dream about one of my best friends from high school, E.  It’s easy to see why, now: the Catholic school experience Lady Bird portrays felt deeply familiar to me, with its scenes of Mass, and its strict-but-benevolent nuns, and its hideous uniforms (we wore the same green kilts!), and its silly, fresh-faced girls trying desperately to be serious, mature women.  There were many exchanges between Lady Bird and her best friend that took me back, heart-achingly, instantaneously, to some of the innocent exchanges I had with my friend, E.  How many afternoons we spent on the floor of her living room thumbing through magazines, eating gummy bears, watching Can’t Hardly Wait or She’s All That or some of the oldies we loved, like the two-tape Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth, swooning over movie stars, wishing and willing that life would just happen to us.

In the dream, though, I was at a house party we’d attended when I visited her at Elon as a first-year in college.  I had been wearing an oxford and a short poplin skirt — yes, to a party — and we were wide-eyed and awkward, giggling to each other, exchanging hushed words, not knowing how to engage the older boys with their swoopy, fratty Southern haircuts and Rainbow flip flops and flipped collars.  There were bits of this in the dream, bits of a nervous feeling, and, for some reason, the lights were not on: everything was dim.  I couldn’t see, and it angered me.

I woke up crying.

My friend E. died the year I got married to Mr. Magpie.  She was 26.

One of the most devastating things I remember about her is how upset she was when the cancer had compromised her reproductive organs and she learned she wouldn’t be able to carry a child.  My heart aches at this memory — both with rage that something so terrible could happen to someone so young, and with agonizing tenderness at her optimism for the future, even when the cancer had advanced to such a serious state.  She was not so worried about surviving; she was more worried about surviving and not having a child.  I didn’t know whether this was because she was in denial about her prognosis or because she needed to hold out hope for a vision of a future that she’d nurtured since we were just kids, lying on the carpeted floor of her living room, talking in excited voices about so-and-so and this-and-that and all of the inanities that come with being a teenager girl, wishing and willing for life to happen to us.

Even eight years after her death, she visits with me.  I hear a song — Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance,” which she once put on a mix CD for me, and which we laughed at because we thought it improbably schmaltzy, and which I now cannot hear without a throb of grief, both because it was a joke between us and because its lyrics are devastatingly apropos.  I come across a bright, preppy article of clothing — say, the re-launch of J. Crew’s rugby shirt last year (we both loved madras and seersucker and polo shirts like none other) — and I think how she would have liked it, too.  “Can you believe they’ve brought these back?” I might have asked her, forwarding a picture of the two of us wearing rugby shirts back in the late 90s.  Every so often, I see her quick smile, her knowing look, her ready hug, in the gestures of others, and I make a double take.  “Was that…?”  I see Lady Bird laughing with her girlfriend, their feet propped up on lockers as they lay on their backs at school, and I think of E. rushing over to me across the wood-slatted floor of the balcony in front of the Fennessy building just off 35th Street in Georgetown, as we’d head off to our lockers to exchange urgent jokes and plans for the weekend — and the juxtaposition of our carefree teenage years against her untimely death leaves me dark.

But there is this:

When I woke up crying that night, I texted another girlfriend of mine from high school who was also very close with E.  We exchange messages only irregularly now — the occasional “Happy Birthday” or “How are the babies?” or “Just heard our song on the radio [Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker,” which we used to listen to at the highest decibel of my car stereo, with the sunroof open, coasting down Tilden Street to Rock Creek Parkway]” — but many of these texts are quick admissions: “I thought of E today,” or “Missing E,” or “It’s been [x] years.”

And I think that E. would have liked this.

Would have liked that she remains the tie that binds us together — as she was the centrifugal force keeping our group together in high school, too.

Would have liked the symmetry of our all having attended Georgetown Visitation, named after the miracle of the visitation of Mary by Saint Elizabeth — named after, in other words, the image of two women visiting with one another in a time of need.

Would have liked that when she visits with me, in thought or dream, I visit with our other friend.

Our sometime exchanges remind me, too, of the passing of time, of the fact that life has not only happened to us, but that we have happened to it, and by that I mean that we have become active agents in the building of the lives that we want, but not without fate or God or whatever you believe in intervening at opportune and inopportune moments.  And I think that E. would have liked this, too — would have liked to know that we make things happen for ourselves, but that things also happen, fairly and unfairly, every day, to all of us.

Did she know these things at the age of 26, when all I could think was “why is this happening to you?”

Had she had enough experiences at the time of her death to parse the significant from the insignificant?

Had I?

Have I now?

When do we learn these things?

So, yes, I’ve seen Lady Bird in thousands of iterations in my lifetime, but maybe I needed to be reminded that I am not the protagonist of one coming-of-stage story; I am the author of many.  The number of times I have grown up all over again, learned things from scratch, made a late-stage realization?  Uncountable.  It feels unspeakably, unthinkably, unimaginably cruel that E. was not granted more time to experience these evolutions herself.  But she has certainly been the instigator in many of my own, even now, when those afternoons spent on the carpet of her living room feel so distant and so close, the memory weaving and unweaving, the teenage laughter and the adult tears blurring together, now and then, forever and ever, amen.


Now would be a good time for me to take a minute to send some love to the girlfriends who visit with me. Some lovely just-because gifts:

+A little hand-written note letting them know how much they mean to me, on pretty stationery, like this or this.

+A one-line-a-day journal to remind them to make space for themselves.  (I know I need to.)

+A simple wire bangle with a meaningful saying or set of initials on it, or a simple plated necklace with the same.

+Goop bath salts/soaks — so trendy right now (I feel like the blogosphere can’t stop/won’t stop talking about them!), but they also promote a sense of self-care.

+A little knick-knack that reminds you of your friend — maybe this little needlepoint hoop (LOVE) or this little hand-painted dog dish, which can also be personalized!

+For your fellow girl-power feministas: this splurge-y sweater or this canvas tote.

+A card for a friend going through IVF.

+A good book, with a hard cover, inscribed with a little note of encouragement.

+A box of treats from MilkBar.

P.S.  More gifts I would actually give.

P.P.S.  Unrelated: I think I need to order this for Cinco de Mayo.

P.P.P.S.  More dreams.

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16 thoughts on “Ladybird, Loss, and the Visitation.

  1. The 10th anniversary of my sister’s death was this Monday – she was 28, and also a cancer victim. This post struck so many chords with me. I treasure any fleeting dreams I have of her, and try to remember every single detail of them when I wake up. It still stuns me that she’s not still here with me, sighing on the phone and asking me why I’m on my computer, half shopping and drinking wine, instead of going on a bike ride with her, or shopping in physical stores, or just driving around with the windows open, singing along to Mariah Carey on the radio (“Always Be My Baby”, for us).
    I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend, and I wish you comfort and the peace of your friends and family. Thank you for this post.

    1. Hi there – I am so deeply sorry for your loss. I’ve been thinking about you all morning, since reading this in bed when I woke. I wish you the same comfort and peace; thanks for writing in and sharing your experience. xoxo

  2. This was so heart achingly lovely. I lost one of my closest high school friends to a tragic, premature death back when I was starting Sophomore year at Georgetown University. As it happens, I was living in a campus apartment overlooking the field hockey field of Georgetown Visitation Prep. That entire fall semester I took comfort from the energy of the Visitation Prep team practices and games – I somehow felt connected to girl friendship energy when I was studying outside at the picnic table, across the fence from the field hockey drills and screaming of team cheers (“We’ve got spirit, yes we do…..”). There was also a smiling nun whom I saw jog around the field almost every day in her modern-day nun’s habit (and whom I cleverly named “The Jogging Nun”). (You will recognize that I mean the clothing worn by female religious, not a customary behavior!). Every thing you wrote about LadyBird and one’s own coming of age resonated with me (and I am a good 20 years older than you) and I loved reading your memories of E. My daughter is now the age my friend Sarah and I were when we were making high school memories so Sarah has been on my mind, has been with me in spirit so much of late. Thank you for your beautiful blog – I will now be making my way through your posts.

    1. Tricia — Wow. I am so touched by this, and by the curious overlapping of details in our stories. Something poetic about it, actually — thank you for writing in to share. xoxo

  3. As terribly trite as it is to follow that up with “all the feels”… that’s what your writing gave me. All the feels. Thank you for that beautiful post! <3

  4. This was a beautiful post and has stayed with me for hours now. I am still trying to work through the feelings it has brought up for me.

    I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend.

    1. Thank you, Kate – I know it was a little on the heavy side for a Monday; hope it didn’t drag you down too much…xoxo

  5. I lost one of my best friends this summer. She was 34 and died on her son’s third Birthday. The year has been grief-filled but your story about your own friend and the ways she is still with you gave me comfort. One of my biggest fears is that she will disappear more and more over time.

    1. Oh, Jessica — I am devastated for you, and for her family, and for her son. This comment took my breath away; I’m so sorry for your loss. I understand and relate to your fear, too. After this latest dream, I emailed E’s mom and she told me that while she misses E, she now doesn’t cry as much; she “tr[ies] to focus on where she is and how happy she is now.” So maybe, over time, we also create new visions for the ones we’ve lost, too. The thought is comforting. Sending you my deepest condolences, though. This is tough stuff. xoxo

  6. What a heartbreaking story of friendship and love— and visitation. And women. To me, That is actually why I want to see this movie, why I enjoy reading your words, why, in fact, i write in to you at all. Yes: your friend’s story, your blog, my comments, that movie… nothing new here really. I’m not Elon Musk.

    But I think telling any story honestly, even if it’s been said before, has value; and in fact, we need more storytelling. It reminds us of our shared humanity. Of what is lost, what remains.

    1. Bunny – that’s such a well-observed point: does it matter if the plot feels familiar when the telling of it evokes something from us, stirs something in us? I think you’re right that a lot of it has to do with honesty, authenticity in the act of story-telling, too, because it’s sure to pull at a heartstring somewhere when it’s told from the heart. Thanks for framing it in this light.

      And thanks for, as always, the words of kindness and support.

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