‘Return to Sender,’ read the yellow sticker plastered over my friend’s name on the envelope I’d addressed and mailed a couple of weeks before Christmas, ‘Insufficient Address, Unable to Forward.’
Standing by my mailbox in the snow, I held the unopened card between my cold hands and saw that I hadn’t included my friend’s apartment number in her address. But she’d lived in the same small cluster of condominiums for well over a decade. Wouldn’t a local postal carrier know her address?
As I carried the envelope back toward my house, I felt a deep foreboding. I’d met Heidi two decades before when her family had visited our church. At the time, we were both around 30. She’d recently been diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease that restricted blood flow to her limbs and tightened her skin and connective tissue, causing her to walk with a cane.
Our paths crossed again ten years later at another church. Heidi propelled herself down the aisle in a motorized wheelchair, but she had the same friendly smile and buoyant energy that I vividly remembered.
“I think we’ve met before,” I said, greeting her after the service in the foyer.
It turned out that Heidi lived just a quarter mile down the road from me, and we soon became fast friends. She and her daughter joined a book club I was leading. We went to a couple of local craft fairs together, but traversing the twisted brick sidewalks and granite store stoops of our New England town made getting around difficult. So we usually visited in her apartment, where Heidi, a consummate crafter, showed me the latest button dolls she’d painted or the intricate paper cards she made as gifts for family and friends.
Six years ago our family moved, and I started a new job, making it harder to visit. I’d stop by Heidi’s apartment while running errands, only to find that she was out. Our phone calls and cards became less frequent. And the less frequent they became, the easier it became to ignore the gentle nudge prompting me to call. Then came COVID-19.
I was so flummoxed, trying to keep up with the ever-changing news and regulations that I didn’t reach out to see how Heidi was doing. I vowed to call but never did. This past December, I made sure that Heidi was on my Christmas list, but when I opened my mailbox, there lay her unopened card.
Before calling to apologize, something made me sit down at my computer and type Heidi’s name. It came up quickly, with one bold-faced word beside it: Obituary. Without a call from me, without a card or a visit, Heidi had died more than one year before.
No words can couch my regret, or erase the hollow ache I feel, knowing that I abandoned a friend. I offer no excuse, only a gentle nudge. If my words spark the name of some distant friend or family member – someone you’ve been meaning to call – please pick up the phone. Send a card. Or stop by for a visit. None of us knows how long we, or those we love, will be here. And some messages can’t be forwarded.
When I picture Heidi, I see her sitting at her craft table, surrounded by all of the reels of ribbons and boxes of buttons and stacks of paper from which she made her gifts. I will always cherish the ones she made for me. But perhaps Heidi’s greatest gift was the bond she shared with those who were blessed to know her.
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes from a little house in the big woods of Midcoast Maine. She is the author of the children’s picture book The Backward Easter Egg Hunt and four other books in the Lantern Hill Farm series celebrating the holidays with activities that build children’s faith.