Excerpt from my upcoming book The Town That Raised Me
My first best friend was Tana Powell. Her family moved south to Shelby from Pittsburgh. Her dad had a leadership role with PPG. Cat and Hugh Lee Irvin, my next door neighbors, called me over to their yard one day. Cat said, “Pat, come on over, I wantcha to meet Tana.” I walked over swirling a three-leaf clover I had just picked in the grass. Tana was standing there with a big bow in her thick, wavy hair, and a one piece shorts outfit. She had big, beautiful eyes, and she was staring at me. Cat said, “Okay girls, Tana, this is Pat. Pat, this is Tana.” We looked at each other silently for a few minutes, and Tana first broke the silence, “Hey Pat, can you come over and play?” Excitedly, I said, “Let me first ask my mom.” Cat was smiling with her arms crossed over her chest as I ran across the grass to the front porch. I opened the door and yelled to my mom, “Tana wants me to go play with her, is that okay?” My mom walked out of the kitchen and said, “Who is Tana?” She walked outside with me and saw Cat and Tana waiting for me. She waved, smiled, and said “Hello” to both and said, “Sure, be home for supper.” As I ran across the yard, I said, “I will!”
Tana did not have a southern accent. She talked slightly differently, but we thought much the same. We played for several hours in a made up world. I was so happy to have a new friend one house up the street. I would often go up to her house. Her dad had a deep, but very calm voice, and her mom would always say, “Hello Pat, how are you?” Her mom wore a patch on one eye part of the time they lived there. My mom told me she was healing from surgery. I was too young to really understand the complexities of sickness, but I was old enough to understand bliss. My childhood days with Tana were just that. One day, Tana said, her eyes looking hard at the ground, “We are moving.” She would begin first grade in Maryland from her grandmother’s house, while her parents would find a house in Pittsburgh. PPG had called her dad back to the home office. Her mom would undergo more surgery. Tana would stay in Maryland while everything was sorted out. Not long after this announcement, I watched the Powells pull out of their driveway. Tana waved and waved from the back window of their car. My heart was broken. My life was empty. My best friend was gone. I would start first grade without her.
The years passed. We exchanged letters, and several times, Tana visited with Cat and Hugh Lee. Cat would always call me over to her yard and say, “Look who is here.” We would stare at each other for a minute, and then grin and Tana would say, “Let’s go.” We would go sit on the Irvins’ front steps, and she would tell me about her life in Pittsburgh. I would tell her about mine in Shelby. Although we grew up far away from each other, there was an understanding about this very fragile feeling called friendship. No matter what, we could return to that place we found years ago. As we got older, the visits were less frequent, and so were the letters. Our lives were so different, and yet, I knew she was out there. I had my horse and my dog, and my life was full. I had grown to understand about sickness and its complexities. My sister, who is developmentally disabled, taught me about pain and suffering. I understood more the challenges Tana faced with her mom’s illness, and Tana, like no one else, understood my sister. In a world of so many people, my first best friend grew to be the kindest person I’d ever known. A treasure in an unforgiving world of selfish, desperate people, Tana was the essence of sincere.
When I was in high school, I saw Cat out in the yard, she said, “Hon, run over here for a minute.” I did and she said, “The Powells are moving back to Shelby. They bought a house across town. Here is their new phone number, they will be back next week. Tana wants to see you.” I stared at her for a minute, and then started smiling, and I said, “Are you kidding me?” And she smiled and shook her head and said, “No, I am not kidding, call her on Thursday.” I started for the house, and said “This is great, I will….”
So Tana and I picked up where we left off. She became a part of the lives of my friends. It was impossible not to love her. Over Christmas break one year, we decided to head up to the mountains to go skiing. I am not really a snow person. I love to watch it fall and then go for a long walk when it first rests on the ground. I love the silence in snowfall, the very loud quiet of it all, and then after a day or two, I long for the blue sky, sunshine, and no layers of clothes. Anyway, a big snow was expected, and so we said, “Why not?” Tana could ski and I could not. So we headed up towards Blowing Rock and then Boone, and it was snowing. Not flurries, but that serious kind of snow where the sky is even white. We made the turn towards Beech Mountain and the roads were white. Cars were moving slowly, and we were crawling in deep snow. We had the radio blaring and Tana had her window down, every now and then she would put her head out of the window as her hair and lashes would turn white from the snow, and she would shout out, “We own the road!” Then she would adjust the antenna to make sure we could continue to pick up our Charlotte radio station. On the right curve, it came in loud and clear. We were cruising in slow motion. We would laugh and laugh and continue to go. Finally, we arrived at the parking lot that was covered in deep snow. We spent ten minutes layering on clothes, and then headed for the slopes. This would be day one for me.
We walked out into the freezing cold, snow falling in buckets, and people bundled up everywhere. Tana stopped and pulled me aside, she said, “Okay Patty, we will stand next to each other at the line. The chair will come to meet your butt, sit down and grab the side bar and we will lower the safety bar. I will tell you how to get off on our way up. Okay? It is really easy.” I said “Okay,” as I watched other bundled up people stand at the line, sit down and go. The ski boots were difficult. My legs and feet felt broken and like in a cast. Walking was an unnatural endeavor, and the skis only made it worse. Then there were the hat and the gloves. I felt like a snowman with broken legs as I made my way in the line. Our turn was coming, and Tana kept saying, “Don’t worry, it’s so easy.” I nodded my head, quietly unsure of the whole procedure. I was shaking, cold and nervous.
Our turn to move to the line was up. Tana was first, and as I started to move, the person behind me was tangled in my skis. I finally moved forward, and the attendant stopped me and said, “Next chair.” I looked at Tana, and her eyes were big, and her mouth opened. In slow motion, I began to move towards the line. Tana was yelling at me, “Turn around, when the chair hits your butt, sit down and grab the bar on the side of the chair. Oh great…now lower the safety bar…oh great! You are there!” I was. I was sitting on a frozen seat going up. Tana said, “Okay, when you see me get off, raise the safety bar, scoot forward, and grab the bar. Let the chair gently push you off.” I said, “Okay.” I was concentrating on my every move. I watched Tana gracefully exit the chair, and then turn to watch me. I raised the bar and let the chair gently push me, and then I hit unexpected ice. My skis started to go out from under me. I felt myself falling, one ski left me and was sliding away, my hat detached from my very cold head, and I was slowly going down, and then I hit deep snow. I felt like my being was scattered across the very deep white. I felt all eyes were on me. My face turned every shade of red. Tana raced over and looked down on me, “Are you all right?” I started laughing, she started laughing. The world started laughing. And suddenly, everyone was helping to put me back together.
I was finally standing at the top of the hill. Tana was ever so gracefully moving down the hill, and yelling instructions with an occasional, “You own the road.” I laughed. She laughed. Without swoosh, without grace, I made my way. I don’t know how, but I arrived at the bottom where it was flat. Tana yelled at me, “Let’s go!” In my most awkward way, I made it to the line of people waiting for another go. I followed Tana…line, butt, sit, grab, pull down, and I was on. I don’t remember driving home later that night. I just remember deep snow until there was none. Late that night, we pulled into Tana’s driveway, and I helped her get her things out. She waved and said, “Okay Patty, see you tomorrow.” I looked at my beautiful friend, and for a minute, we were four years old. There were many more tomorrows, until suddenly there were none.
Tana went back to school at WVU. I didn’t see her much. Then my mom called to tell me Tana was in the hospital. She had gone to a football game and passed out. They were trying to find out what was wrong. She was eventually diagnosed with epilepsy. My sister also has this, and one of my scariest childhood memories is her falling out of the bed while having a grand mal seizure. My parents were terrified, and I saw the fear in their eyes. Tana was in and out of doctors’ offices and hospitals trying to manage this life-changing condition. At some point, it was decided she should not drive. We finished school, and I moved to Charlotte. I rented an apartment off of Colony Road. After several roommates, Tana moved in. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Tana was enjoying life even with the complexities of illness. We were beginning to talk seriously about life, who we were, where we wanted to go. I was in a serious relationship, and Tana was having fun out on the town. Charlotte was the perfect size at that time. It was big enough to have nice things, and yet it felt somewhat like a hometown. We moved around fearless of what tomorrow might bring. I think the city was doing the same. One winter, snow fell in Charlotte, deep, deep snow. We walked into the once open fields around Southpark Mall, the emptiness, the untouched snow, the blue sky, the one open place to dine. We became little kids again, sledding with abandon down any hill we could find, and then retreating to the “Open” sign to have lunch. We listened to every person’s snow story on day one into day seven. It was a marvelous time.
I soon began planning a wedding. I moved out of the condo. Our lives, mine and Tana’s, took different turns. I was immersed in creating a new, very expected life, but everything was the epitome of unexpected. Tana came to my wedding, and one of my biggest regrets is that she was not maid of honor. My mother in law, before I realized her game, implored me to chose her nieces instead of my friends to be in the wedding party, and in trying to please, I obliged. Tana and I drifted apart. I heard through the grapevine that she had met her guy, fallen in love, and married. She moved to Roanoke. I then heard she had a baby boy and named him Andrew. I also knew she was still fighting epilepsy. I was fighting infertility. As the years passed, our own lives consumed us. We thought we had time. Tana died from epilepsy at age thirty-nine, leaving behind her beloved husband and the light of her life, her son, Andrew. I would never see her again. In that spring, finality was so grim. I could not imagine that she was really gone. In the fall of the same year, my son was born.
Through the years, I have thought about Tana a lot. She was brave and true, kind beyond measure, the kind of person we should never lose, but life does not work in should or fair. Several weeks ago by chance, I searched for her son and found him on Facebook. He has her eyes, and on first impression, I think, her heart. He had the most wonderful mother, he has the most wonderful mother, souls with big hearts never leave.
Today, it is funny to think that we once thought we owned the road, we were too naive to even consider that the road was full of blind curves, pot holes, work zones, and dead ends. I now know that none of us make it through, we never own the road we are on. I can truthfully say, when it comes to all first best friends, however, we remain connected forever, wherever I can imagine that place to be. So wherever you are, my dear first best friend…Tana Powell…I will always love you, and that is how this story sadly stops, where the road we were on became a dead end.