Tracey died on Thursday.
There. I said it. But it makes no more sense written down than it does being repeated a hundred times in my head.
Tracey was a school friend. We were in the same class and we were young together. She was tall and smart and funny and pretty. For a long time we were together almost every day; two people in a large and incredible group of friends who laughed and played and shared endless happy hours in the sun and the rain, never quite feeling the cold. A group of friends who took each other for granted in the best possible way, because there were no horizons.
It was the best of times. We were young together and we could be astronauts, footballers, pop stars and prime ministers. Everything was possible and our little classroom at Burnside School was a cauldron of hopes and dreams. It overflowed with an exhilarating potion made from blissful ignorance in our own mortality, a limitless supply of potential and that special kind of optimism which comes from beautiful childish naivety.
I cried on my last day at that school. If you know me at all then you’ll know me as an emotional sort. And on that last sunny day in July 1990, sitting on the grassy bank at lunch time, I cried. I knew that everything was about to change and I feared that the change was for something less; something worse. We’d still be astronauts, footballers, pop stars and prime ministers, but we’d do it apart. There was still potential, but the optimism was dimmed and there was a shadow on the horizon. We wouldn’t be young together again.
I must have blinked because now I’m 34 and the last thing I expect working late in the office on a Friday evening is to get this message: “Hi Andrew don’t know if you know but our Tracey died yesterday…”.
Nonsense. What? Those words couldn’t mean what they seemed to mean. I could jumble them up into a different order, a better order. Then they’d make sense. I’d read the message again, then I’d understand. We’ll have another go. Because this doesn’t happen. Not yet.
But Tracey died on Thursday. We don’t get another go.
Yes, Tracey was a school friend. Of course she was. We were in the same class and we were young together. She was tall and smart and funny and pretty. All of those things.
But she was that girl.
It was primary school and we went from eight to eleven years old, so a word like “girlfriend” needs to be read in that context. But what I know for certain is that she was my first and I remember the day she joined our school like it was yesterday. Her eyes mesmerised me. I know because she was the first girl who made me feel like that in my stomach; the first one who made me excited at the thought of seeing her, and nervous every time I did. That girl.
But she died on Thursday. And though it’s such a long time since I actually knew Tracey in any meaningful way, I am devastated. I know that might make me sound something between pathetic and a fraud, and the family she leaves behind will be suffering in ways I can’t begin to imagine. That’s where the story is really at, mine is a sideshow. But we were young together and she was that girl. That was our moment.
We were young together but now we are less, because now there is death. One of us – that girl – is dead. The potential is faded. We wouldn’t be astronauts or footballers or pop stars or prime ministers. Instead we’d worry about money, cry about loss and now we do feel the cold. Life intervened and, well, now that girl is dead.
Life does that. It’s real and gritty and it hurts and gets in the way of dreams; a series of compromises and decisions that they don’t tell you about at the beginning. We get some of those decisions wrong and we get some of them right. Tracey and I went on to each have families of our own. I have the most perfect wife and two children who are gorgeous and happy and full of wonder at life. It’s their turn to be young now. Their turn to be astronauts. Some things are better than you dream.
In fact, that’s not just what life does. That’s what life is and somehow that’s what I need to take away from this. Because life’s not about astronauts or pop stars after all. Life is about living the details. Life is about people like me clearing up after dinner. People like you falling asleep on the sofa. People like Tracey raising a family and being that special person to so many people. It’s not the stuff of dreams, though maybe it’s more than that.
But whatever you do, just don’t blink.
“Life isn’t waiting at the altar or the moment your child is born… These are fragments. Ten or twelve grains of sand spread throughout your entire existence. Life is brushing your teeth or making a sandwich or watching the news or waiting for a bus. Or walking. Every day, thousands of tiny events happen and if you’re not watching, if you’re not careful, if you don’t capture them and make them count, you could miss it. You could miss your whole life.” – Toni Jordan.
I don’t know much of what Tracey leaves behind. I barely knew her at all anymore. But if she became anything like that girl I knew then so many will have been blessed. And whatever potential Tracey had when we were young together and full of dreams, her short life has left behind a legacy that will last for generations. And footsteps which are still felt in so many people’s hearts – not least mine – more than she probably ever knew. I’m not sure what more any of us could have wished for.
And as broken-hearted as I feel right now, I’ll never forget that girl.