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OpEd: The death of my friend

Linda Ketner

I’m writing from my hometown of Salisbury, N.C. I drove up for the funeral of a woman who has been my friend since second grade. Long friendships such as ours are irreplaceable and the planet feels lonely without her tonight.  

When I moved from Raleigh to Salisbury in the second grade, her desk was beside mine in Mrs. Eudy’s room. I was terrified in this new school, and obviously fighting back tears throughout the morning. She would alternately send me reassuring looks followed by juggling acts or clown faces to try to make me laugh.  

When recess came at 11 a.m., she was captain of one of the kickball teams. She picked me first. “I’ll take Ketner!” she said. “I’ll bet you’re really good at kickball, Ketner!” As I passed, she thrust a lint covered Oreo at me from her pocket.

If you’ve ever been lonely and petrified as a child, you know what a gift she gave me. My fear was gone. I had a friend. It was the first of many gifts I received from her…as did everyone who knew her. 

We went through 12 years of high school and four years of college together. Brownies, Girl Scouts, Mrs. Carter’s ballroom dancing, Girls State, sleepovers, school plays, clubs, sports…she was in the fabric of much of my early life.

And, although she was everyone’s best friend, she didn’t date much in high school or college. She was plenty attractive … she just felt like the guys’ best friend too and not someone they would think to ask out. 

Fast forward through her job in government, my marriage and divorce and acceptance of my sexuality, and you’ll find us in the car together on the way to the City Park for our 15th high school reunion. She and I were both known for asking a million questions, and although I had been in a relationship for five years, I was still in the closet so I was tap dancing my brains out trying to avoid lying to her when she’d ask questions about my life! I’d dodge and volley questions back at her. Back and forth we went in this elaborate non-conversation until the light bulb went off in my head! I screeched the car to a halt, turned to her and yelled, “Are you a lesbian?!

Her mouth fell open and she gave me the stunned-mullet look and said, “Jeeezus! What the hell kind of question is that?!! Good Lord, I can’t believe you! What in the world…”

I interrupted with, “Cause I am!” 

Many “omigods” later, we collapsed in laughter, relief and connection. 

All night long we traded double entendres while we made our way through the reunion events. Finally, we were able to sit in the car and talk until 3 a.m. about our real lives and the people in it. We could retrace high school and look beneath our always smiling good girl images to the truth of our young selves. And the truth was full of high school crushes on female teachers and “best friends,” of bottled up feelings, guilt, fear, isolation and heartache. We traded some pretty silly questions — “if you could date any movie star, who would it be?” Things we could have, should have, done in high school, but never had the chance.

We stayed in touch over the passing years. She lost a long-term relationship because she wasn’t willing to come out of the closet. I left a long-term relationship in part because my partner wasn’t willing to come out of the closet. We talked much about the closet during those days.

It boiled down to my saying I had to come out — that I couldn’t stand the lying and the distance it created in all of my relationships. She said she had to stay in — that it would kill her parents and she would lose all of her straight friends. We didn’t try to change each others minds, we just each wanted to be understood.

Tomorrow, we will bury my buddy — and her secret with her. Only two of the 500 people at her funeral will truly know who she was. I haven’t mentioned her name here because of that. You see, I respect her privacy even in death — until she tells me otherwise.

She was deeply loved. But only two of us in the church will know who she loved.   

How many of us will die with only two people knowing our deepest loves, our truest selves before this idiocy toward LGBT people is over? How long will this stupid, life draining bigotry go on? How many of us, for how long, will think we need to protect the people we love from the good and decent people we are?

All of my friend was loveable and good. And now — finally — she is sure of it. I celebrate your truest, dearest self, my friend. I thank God that I didn’t choose your lonely road. I fight on so that this dimming and diminishment of lives as beautiful as yours will come to an end.

Help us from the other side with a metaphoric Oreo — I know you will.

Linda Ketner is the chair of South Carolina Equality Coalition.

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