A presence, and an absence, deeply felt.

I am searching for Caroline. I am searching among the remnants of memories in an old green army trunk covered in pictures from Vogue and W magazines that are slowly peeling off. I am not sure what I will find.

Near the top is a heavy plaque I received for singing in my high school choir. That’s where I first met Caroline, when we sang in Treble Choir together as freshmen at W.T. Woodson High School. She had long, dark brown hair and sat in the back row due to her height, with her distinctive alto spreading through the rehearsal room like rich molasses. I sat in the very front and tried to blend in with my shaky, quiet voice.

I look through the old journals in my trunk for the one I kept that freshman year, but I can’t find it. But my memory is of sitting alone in Cafeteria A on my first day of high school. I became convinced that Caroline and the other tall, confident girls in the back row at choir had to be sophomores, and there was no way I would be able to break into their group. But when I finally gathered the courage to go up to Caroline’s table at lunch, I was welcomed immediately.

I find an old-timey sepia photograph that some of us took together on a chorus trip to Gatlinburg, TN. Despite our ridiculous costumes, we all kept straight faces — which is funny, because when I think about Caroline, I always think of her smiling. She pronounced her name like Carolyn, with an emphasis on “care.” Her nickname was Mother Moss, and she took care of everyone. She was the consummate Girl Scout, always prepared for anything, with her large, Mary Poppins-like bag.

I pick up the laminated collage of photos that Caroline made for all of us before we went off to college. I remember the Friendship Mix Tape she gave each of us, along with a guardian angel pin. I re-created the playlist last year on my iPod, since Caroline’s collection of Sarah McLachlan, Tori Amos, and the Indigo Girls in a pink shoebox in my closet is pretty useless at this point.

In the trunk I expect to find a stash of letters and cards from Caroline, but I seem to have put them somewhere else. All I find are a few short letters from her time at Governor’s School one summer for a Spanish immersion program, a Christmas card, and a letter she sent for my birthday in February 2000 — along with countless treasured letter and cards from other old friends. Caroline was always the force inspiring us all to stay in touch, with her letters and cards and long, cheerful group e-mails.

After college, Caroline moved to Paris to teach English at a French school. I last saw her a few days before she left, when we met up in Fairfax City at a strip mall where she shopped at TJ Maxx for a black purse to take with her on her trip (I think she owned about ten black handbags). She wore mostly black and other dark colors, so I knew she would blend right in with the Parisians.

We had lunch at Quiznos — she was a vegetarian who mostly subsisted on cheese and chocolate, another good sign that Paris would be perfect for her. We lingered over mochas at Starbucks and finally hugged goodbye.

She still kept up her correspondence to us all during that time, so far away. That year, I received an e-mail from Caroline on my birthday, with the subject “Joyeux Anniversaire!” Less than one month later, on the Ides of March, I got a call from our friends that they were coming over to my house. Stacey and Shelane pulled up and jumped out of the car.

“Caroline’s dead,” they sobbed.

She was at the French school that day and went home early with a headache. She called her mom and said she wasn’t feeling well and was going to lie down. She never woke up. The mother of the French family she had been an au pair for found her. She had somehow contracted meningitis. She was 22.

At her memorial service back home in Fairfax, both the W.T. Woodson Women’s Ensemble and the UVA Virginia Women’s Chorus sang to honor Caroline. She had been the president of our high school chorus and served as an officer in the Virginia Women’s Chorus. We wept during the Irish Blessing sung by the Woodson choir.

Emily stood up and told the story about the time that she, Shelane, and Caroline were driving late one night to pick Amanda up from the airport when a tire blew out on Shelane’s car. Amidst the panic and profanities, Caroline stayed in the backseat, eyes closed, quiet, and then simply said, “I’m working on it.” Shortly after that, a woman pulled up behind them on the side of the road to help. Caroline was convinced the woman was an angel sent from God. Caroline was a Christian Scientist, a faith I never fully understood, but she and I both felt strongly that prayer works.

Under a pile of letters in my old trunk, I find a sage green, framed Emily Dickinson poem that I wrote out and glued dried flowers on — “The Lost Jewel.” I read from it at the memorial service:

I held a jewel in my fingers
And went to sleep.
The day was warm, and winds were prosy;
I said: “’T will keep.”

I woke and chid my honest fingers, —
The gem was gone;
And now an amethyst remembrance
Is all I own.

I never even imagined I would lose someone like Caroline. For years I had saved all of her e-mails, but I forgot to forward them to my current account when I decided that was not the best address to have at the top of my résumé. Her words are now lost to the ether.

After Caroline died, her mother, Bonnie, gave us each a letter she had written in her beautiful scrolling cursive, along with a Brookstone flashlight keychain, imploring us to keep Caroline’s light shining. I still use that tiny but powerful flashlight when I walk home from the metro at night, to guide my way up the dimly lit stairs that lead to my street on a ridge overlooking Pentagon City.

I can’t find Bonnie’s letter in the trunk, but I do find an envelope from her that had contained a claddagh pin that had been Caroline’s. On my wedding day, while I was getting ready in the church parlor before walking down the aisle, Bonnie quickly slipped in at the last minute to give me that pin. Upon pinning it to the inside of my dress, I burst into tears, and my bridesmaids quickly tried to keep me from ruining my makeup. Since then, Shelane, Amanda, Elizabeth, and Stacey have all worn the pin on their wedding days, along with several of Caroline’s college friends.

For the 10th anniversary of her death this year, the seven of us girls got together for one of our long “Friend Weekends” — this time in Charleston, SC. We’ve been getting together every few years, but this was the first time all seven of us were there. We sat around and looked at old photo albums and laughed at our former selves.

On our last morning together, Emily and Lindsy peeled the label off of an empty wine bottle and put a few photographs of all of us in it, along with a handwritten note to Caroline that we all signed. We walked down to the water and we gathered around and all placed our hands on the bottle. After a few awkward jokes, Amanda said simply, “Caroline, we feel your absence as well as your presence.” We elected Stacey, the former softball player, to throw the bottle into the water. We watched it float along, and wondered where it would end up, or if we’d be arrested for littering. We walked back to the house and said our goodbyes.

Caroline had a deep-throated laugh, no athletic ability whatsoever, and a huge heart. She loved mozzarella sticks, singing, and children, but most of all, she loved her friends.

In my mind, it’s as if she’s still in Paris, enjoying her daily Nutella crêpe, falling for a handsome Frenchman, and sending her love to us across the ocean. Je t’aime, Caroline, je t’aime.

Article © 2013 by Rachel Wimer