Stephen Parrish had an imaginary childhood companion. One he never completely let go.
It was February, 1967. I was eight years old. My family had just moved from Kentucky to a small town on the Vermilion River in Illinois. A Catholic grade school was within walking distance of our new house, so my parents took advantage of an opportunity to reverse a heathen trend, and enrolled me.
The first thing I learned when I joined my third grade class was one of my fellow students, a girl named Bridget, couldn’t meet me yet because she was in the hospital. Not long afterwards, Bridget died.
If my teacher, Sister Joseph, had known that what she was about to do would traumatize me, I’m sure she wouldn’t have done it. She took the class for a walk. We marched down the street in the morning chill, turned a corner, and entered a funeral home. On display in the middle of a large and otherwise empty room was a casket. The casket was open, and there lay Bridget.
Sister Joseph instructed us to gather next to the casket on our knees, press our palms together, and recite a sequence of exhortations on behalf of Bridget’s soul. As luck or providence would have it, I ended up kneeling next to Bridget’s face, my elbows resting on the edge of the casket. Students jostling for position behind me shoved me even farther forward, so that I was leaning over her.
She didn’t look at all dead. She looked like she was asleep. She wore a white lace dress, and her hands were clasped across her stomach. She had soft brown hair, smooth skin, and long eyelashes. She was pretty.
We said prayers. We sang songs. All the while I stared into Bridget’s face, from fourteen inches away, waiting for her eyes to flutter open. Waiting for her to look up at the strange kid gazing down at her. The only kid in the class she didn’t know. The only third grade classmate whose acquaintance she would make after she died.
On the way back to school, in an effort to grab onto something corporeal, something of existential certainty, I searched the sidewalk beneath my feet. I was ready to pick up a flower, if one should happen to appear so early in the year, or a frog; anything I understood, anything I could hold onto that reconnected me with a world in which one sunrise followed another, and no sunrise was ever the last.
I saw a penny. I broke ranks to snatch it up. It shined with freshly minted newness. 1966, it said. The last full year of Bridget’s life.
The church held a memorial service. I attended, at Sister Joseph’s insistence, and not knowing where else to sit, I joined a group all dressed in black, clustered near the front. I realized too late it was Bridget’s family. No one complained about an innocent-looking, towheaded, eight year old intruder, so I stayed put.
The priest spoke in a plastic and authoritative tone. He asked a rhetorical question, one distinguished by the absence of a question mark, of a rational follow-up, of even an attempt. One whose answer eluded him as much as anyone:
Why did Bridget die?
Sitting to my right was a man I guessed was Bridget’s grandfather. His eyebrows were in bushy disarray, the way older men who no longer fussed with their appearance let them grow. He was convulsing. Holding the backrest of the pew in front of him for support. Gasping for air between stifled sobs.
He didn’t know why Bridget died, either.
I went home after the service and did the only thing an eight-year-old could do, one whose newest friend was dead, and dead on the day he met her: I made her my imaginary companion.
For a girl, Bridget was pretty good at climbing trees. And wading in creeks. She clutched her white dress above her knees to keep it dry, and was careful not to slip on rocks. She didn’t like toy soldiers or G.I. Joes, but she understood when I wanted to play with them. And with other kids. She never got in the way.
I told my dad about her. I told him I had an invisible companion, and that she was a girl. What he said was insightful: “Enjoy her while she’s still around.”
As I got older, and flesh-and-blood girls took part in my life in a way an imaginary one couldn’t, Bridget’s white shoes and stockings remained disconcertingly visible beneath a curtain that had already begun to separate us. She hadn’t grown at all since we met at the funeral home. She was still eight. I needed to be with kids my own age. It was time to tell her.
You have to go now, Bridget. You can’t keep waiting for me.
The girl disappeared but the curtain remained. Behind it were memories of running through sprinklers and chasing after lightning bugs, all stored away like monochrome prints in an old attic. As the years passed I sometimes watched the curtain, hoping to see movement, but nobody was back there. I eventually came to realize that I hadn’t let Bridget go after all.
In 2005, thirty-eight years after she died, I kept a promise I’d made when my family moved away from that small town on the Vermilion River. I had business in northern Illinois, and when it was concluded I aimed my rental car south, navigated back to my boyhood home, and found my way to the library.
It was easier than I expected. The librarian showed me how to feed the newspaper microfiche, how to scroll from day to day, beginning the first of February, 1967. A few minutes later, there it was, the obituary of an eight year old girl, a student at a local Catholic school. I read the announcement of a memorial service I had attended thirty-eight years before. I read the names of relatives I had sat with. At the end of the article I got what I came for: the name of the cemetery.
It was on the outskirts of town, in a place that was always quiet in the middle of the day. I parked my car on the side of the road, then systematically worked my way across rows of headstones, looking for Bridget’s. Three-quarters of the way through, I found it. A pillow marker. A simple block of granite commemorating a brief and consequential life.
For me the distinction between what was and what should have been has blurred beyond recognition, and foiled even my own stubborn faith. All I carry with me is a kaleidoscope of feelings, a conviction to get them down on paper, and the sense of peace that results when I have communicated something true and unobscured by static detail—when I have helped an otherwise forgotten little girl to live forever.
I stood over the monument. A dusty curtain appeared. Beneath it, white shoes and stockings came into view. The curtain eased open.
The eyelashes. The way she clutched the hem of her dress.
You have to go now, Steve. You can’t keep waiting for me.
I reached into my pocket. Out came a penny. Its luster had long since faded, but the date was still clear. A faint halo of green oxidation circled its outer edge. I wedged the penny into the soil next to the monument, pressing down with my thumb to sink it as deeply as possible. Then I said goodbye and walked back to my car.
“Bridget” first appeared in Saying Goodbye, published by Dream of Things.