Godspeed, Helen. We were there.
February 22nd, 2018
An organization for organization’s sake is an empty shell. People in them make them, and what they make of the time they share there could last a lifetime.
As published in The Memphis Daily News, February 23, 2018, and in The Memphis News, February 24-March 2, 2018
A HAPPY DAY AT A FUNERAL
Her name was Helen Larkin.
She was a couple of years younger than me when she started at the University of Tennessee and pledged the same sorority my wife did a few years earlier. Two of her three older brothers were in my fraternity there and one of her two sisters was in my high school class. Spring quarter of her freshman year, Helen would become a Little Sister of that fraternity.
Fall quarter of her sophomore year, her life and the lives of everyone who knew and loved her would be reshaped in bent metal and broken glass in a tragic moment on a dark street in Knoxville. The lives of everyone in that car would forever change. One life ended there, two others would have to be rebuilt from broken parts, and Helen would disappear into a coma.
Her momma, widowed young and mother of six, enrolled in nursing school so that she could help Helen gradually return to the light, neither of them ever giving up. Her family made sure the light shined as bright as possible for Helen, never dimming her spirit despite considerable physical and neurological challenges.
Helen’s arduous journey ended a couple of weeks ago and we were there to wish her Godspeed in the next one, her challenges happily over.
Her brother, my close friend and fraternity brother, Steve, was there – who used to stand with me on the frat house porch waiting for two girls who were driving from Memphis together to see us, the two girls we’re married to today. Another fraternity brother, Pat Mahoney, was there – who was in that wreck almost 50 years ago – and who visited Helen in these last years every week, sometimes several times a week, always with flowers, or sneaking in a forbidden milkshake, or both. Many fraternity brothers were there, for Helen and the Larkins, and for each other – in recognition of that bright, cute girl we knew and of the formative, sometimes stupid, sometimes tragic, always fascinating and unforgettable time we shared coming of age.
Greek letters and names don’t matter, whether or not it’s a fraternity or a sorority or a garden club doesn’t matter, or a political party for that matter. What matters is being part of something that can support and comfort, correct and forgive, and love and laugh and cry with you, sometimes at the same time, while all the time helping navigate a larger, stormier sea.
This day, we were happy for Helen and to have known her and each other. It occurred to me that I would not have known her or any of them or much of my life without our common bond.
Those who would legislate the end of fraternities and sororities should understand that the recklessness of youth wouldn’t end with that legislation, only the peer support to survive it and the recognition of that support for a lifetime.
I’m a Memphian, and I knew a courageous girl named Helen and some pretty terrific guys.