Everybody who met her fell in love with her.
I should know. I was one of them.
It began with her smile. The twinkle in her eyes. The beautiful face. That’s just what drew you in.
Once you got to know her — her heart, her soul, her spirit — you fell in love with everything about her. Poetry would be written about her.
I should know. I wrote one of those poems.
She was one of the first muse’s in my life, somebody I have cherished having in my life, even if it was for too short a time.
The memories flood back often; some pieces of a puzzle I try to put in chronological order, others so vivid it’s like decades haven’t passed since our time together. Thinking abut her could easily provoke both hearty laughter of fulfillment and devastating tears of loss.
I should know. Today, I both smile and weep alongside all who knew her.
Twenty years ago, Lisa Marie Carleton — one of the best friends I ever had in this world — flew too close to the arms of God, and He took her from all of us as the plane she was a passenger on fell out of the sky over the Florida Everglades.
It was May 11, 1996. I try not to think of that singular moment — Did she know what was happening? Was she scared? — but over the past two decades, I think of Lisa often and always smile.
It might be a song. A scent. A time and place. She is a ghost I still dance with often because a love and friendship that touches you so deep is hard to let go.
I remember hearing the news.
I was sitting at my desk at the Bangor Daily News and a story on our state wire had the headline, “Maine women killed in ValuJet crash.”
When I opened the file and read her name, I felt everything inside of me get sucked out. My breath. My thoughts. I was heartbroken. I was numb. I walked down to the basement of our building, into a locker room that been used by men who ran our press room, and I cried.
Lisa was gone. She was 26 years old.
In a chicken-and-egg moment, I wish I could remember how I met her. What came first? I either met her a party in the backwoods of Glenburn, Maine, and I found out she worked as a hostess at J. Ryan’s Restaurant in the Bangor Mall, or I met her at the mall and was invited to the party.
I almost tend to think it was the latter because my best friend at the time also worked at the Bangor Mall, and he fell in love with her, as well.
I told you she had that way about her. Guys just fell in love with her.
At the party, though, I remember that I felt like I was the only boy in her life. That was another trait Lisa had. When you were with her, you felt like you were the most important person in her world.
And, truth be told, you were because few lived in the moment the way Lisa did.
I loved her and she loved me back — that I always knew with all of my heart. But it was obvious early on that instead of a being a hot and torrid, young summer romance, our relationship would blossom into something bigger.
It was an unwavering, especially close friendship that was unlike any other relationship I had before then, or since.
One afternoon, we had concocted a plan to spend some time together alone. Her parents were going out to dinner and I should come over and park away from the house so nobody knew I was there. As we were hanging out in her bedroom (alone), her parents came home far earlier than either of us expected. Lisa stuffed me into her closet for fear of us getting caught and her parents thinking the worse.
There I stood, in the darkness, holding my breath as her mom came in to check up on her and say goodnight.
As I was planning my escape (which window had the shortest drop?), Lisa was having a crisis of conscience and decided there was only one way to get out of such a mess.
She took my hand and we made the long walk to her parents’ bedroom. She didn’t let go of me and she told her parents the truth.
“Oh yeah, mom and dad, did I mention John came over and was hiding in my closet.”
That was the night I realized that her family had become family to me, as well.
Lee and Sandy — who we all lost just a few years later, to cancer — were her parents and they didn’t kill me that night. In fact, I was allowed to crash at their house on more than one occasion after that.
Joline was her older sister, and over the ensuing years we would become especially close, as well. Robyn was her younger sister and she gave birth to her first child on the same day my son was born.
Both embraced me after Lisa brought me into her family’s fold. If Lisa could love me, they could, as well. And that has always meant the world to me; far more than they will ever know.
In the title of this blog, I refer to Lisa as an angel, and that, too, is something I believe.
I know first-hand how her family draws strength from her memory, and are doing everything in their power to keep Lisa’s spirit alive and well.
And, it’s probably selfish to believe, but I think from time to time Lisa checks in on me, as well, with a little smile and a wink — which always fills my heart when such a moment happens.
Late one night, while making the 15-mile commute home from work, Lisa and my song came on the radio — “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” — sung by 1970s rock legend Meatloaf.
If you listen to the words, you might totally get the wrong idea as to why this was my song with Lisa.
“I remember every little thing, As if it happened only yesterday … Parking by the lake, And there was not another car in sight.”
Truth be told, it’s a far more innocent story, but one I remember vividly.
After spending a summer’s day visiting Lisa’s extended family, about a two-hour drive away from home, we were on our way back, just the two of us, when Lisa popped a tape into the car’s cassette player.
It was Meatloaf and it was Paradise.
I don’t know how many times we played that song over and over again, singing it at the top of our lungs to each other — Lisa taking the girl’s part, me taking the guy’s. We would screw up, laugh and go back to the beginning … over and over again until we got it right.
We sang. We laughed. We finally became one in song and we created a memory I have cherished forever.
As my car cut through the darkness of the Connecticut night, Paradise came on the radio. As I listened to it, and thought of the day with Lisa, my heart was filled with both joy and sadness, when suddenly up ahead a darkened street light came to life.
Somebody once told me that such a phenomenon was actually an angel in your presence, and in that moment it felt like Lisa was next to me, checking in, saying hello.
I have to believe it because 20 years later, Lisa still lights up my heart when I think about her.
Everybody who met Lisa Marie Carleton fell in love with her.
I should know. I was one of them.