On Wednesday, I received a letter from a high school friend, wishing me a happy 30th birthday. It arrived a week after my birthday . . . and a day after my friend was killed in the lobby of the Indianapolis Ramada Inn. Beth had been working as an assistant sales manager for Ramada for less than two months when an Air Force fighter slammed into the building one week ago, killing nine people.
It was later that I thought of the small ironies. Her eight-page letter, sent express mail, was postmarked on Sunday, intended for delivery Monday. What was the rush?
It's strange how fate has its way.
She had only moved back to Indianapolis in August, 12 years after we both were graduated from high school there in 1975. Beth was almost always late for everything; but last Tuesday, she had arrived at work on time.
When I first heard about the crash, I thought, "How tragic," and went back to work. It wasn't until late Tuesday night that the event touched me personally. My brother Johnny called from Indianapolis. He had seen "Beth L. Goldberg, 30, of Indianapolis," flash on the TV screen and wasn't sure if it was the Beth we both knew.
I didn't want to believe it. But a phone call to my parents confirmed my fear. I sobbed alone, but my feelings then were more for her parents and two sisters. I later found out that they had their own period of waiting. Her car remained parked outside the hotel all Tuesday. It wasn't until later that afternoon that positive identification could be made through dental records.
It was the first time a close friend had died. We had shared trips to Florida, day camp, summer school, failures and successes with diets, men and jobs. She was one of the first to visit me when I moved to Los Angeles in 1978. The last time I saw her was in Indianapolis, about three years ago.
Though the miles had separated us for many years, there was always a special bond. Her lengthy, feeling letters seemed to fill in the gaps.
In her last letter, she talked about how she was enjoying her new job and was looking forward to Halloween but couldn't decide what to dress up as. She mentioned, too, that she was going to treat herself to a Caribbean cruise in November with Ellie, her sister and best friend, and planned to visit one of our high school friends in Florida on the way. "I'll be back to work on Nov. 16," she wrote. Beth had just turned 30 on Aug. 5.
The tragedy brought me face to face with my own tenuous mortality. During my 30 years I have had several close scrapes. For example, more than 10 years ago I drove my car onto a railroad crossing in Indianapolis that was overgrown with weeds. My vehicle was hit broadside by an oncoming train. I was thrown from the car and received a concussion, severe facial lacerations and all my ribs were broken.
Guess it wasn't my time to go. Why was it hers?
I opened my yearbook and looked at her smiling face--it was the only picture I could find quickly. More recent ones were thrown in a box, which I had planned on organizing one of these days. Beth was great when it came to organization. Her scrapbooks were always kept so neat. She loved to take photos.
The last line of her last letter was particularly eerie, but in any other context would have been cliche: "Many more happy and healthy birthdays . . . live it up royally. We're not getting any younger . . . 29 and holding."
Beth had a certain charm about her, a joie de vivre. In high school and at Arizona State University, she had lots of friends. But, more than that, she always made special efforts to maintain ties with friends in other cities, and to stay close to her family and relatives.
I have a tendency to get busy with my own life and its trifles. I bought her a birthday card this year and intended to mail a nice long letter. But the days and weeks passed and here it was October. I figured I'd eventually sit down and write.
Well, it really is too late now. So this is my final letter to her. As I write, I have a feeling she's here reading over my shoulder. I can still see her laughing eyes and imagine that distinctive, deep voice saying something to cheer me, as was usual for Beth, who readily gave without expecting anything in return.