Lisa Marie Carleton: Forever An Angel

Twenty years ago, Lisa Marie Carleton was taken away from everybody who loved her so much.

Twenty years ago, Lisa Marie Carleton was taken away from everybody who loved her so much.

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.

And better.

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.

(You can read more about this amazing family courtesy of this blog post I wrote last summer, when I got to see the girls again).

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.

Lisa Carleton is the one who brought me into her family's fold and while I miss her every day, I am so thankful for that.

Lisa Carleton is the one who brought me into her family’s fold and while I miss her every day, I am so thankful for that.



I might not be this many old, but it feels like I'm getting there.

I might not be this many old, but it feels like I’m getting there.

A little more than a decade ago, I cracked a joke in front of an older co-worker that poked fun at his age.

It was just one of those innocuous little jokes — so pitiful and small in nature that I don’t even remember it today — but his reaction is something I’ve never forgotten. It turned into a yelling and screaming match that — if one person had stepped forward in the discussion — would have turned into fisticuffs.

And I liked this guy. I really did. A good guy. Good journalist.

He was just at the age where talking about his age set him off. Well, that’s kind of weak … it ignited him, at least his anger toward getting old.

Over the past few years, I kind know of where this former co-worker is coming from.

I’m not aging gracefully, though at least I don’t think I’m aging angrily, either.

Today, I write this on my 50th birthday.

And it doesn’t seem possible.

Yours truly on May 8,  1966.

Yours truly on May 8, 1966.

I was born in 1966, so while I’m a literal child of the 1960s, I’m more of a product of the 1970s and 80s.

I graduated from high school in 1984, starting my professional career as a journalist before I even set foot in a college classroom. I got lucky in that sense, but I think I made the best of my break.

The year 2000 came and went and I was still young — 34, to be exact . Even though I had survived through all of life’s curve balls (divorce, job loss, near homelessness, a wee bit of drug and alcohol abuse) I was still young with my whole life ahead of me.

So I felt. And so I thought.

I used to joke that when I was in my 30s, it felt like I was in my 20s. Once I hit my 40s, suddenly it felt like I was in my 50s.

Now, I AM 50 and I don’t know what to feel.

I feel old in body — but part of that might be the fact I’m out of shape and carrying around a carcass that has been beat up from a few too many years of living a few too many wild nights.

I feel weighted down in mind — part of the struggle of getting used to the idea of getting old, coupled with an ever-changing professional world that may or may not last until retirement.

I feel in lost in spirit.

Perhaps that is the biggest problem of them all.

If I live to be 75, my life is two-thirds over. It doesn’t seem like a very long time.

If I look back the same length of time, then I was 25 — and while it doesn’t seem a very long time ago — in a way it was. In some ways it was forever ago and that 25 year old guy I once was is gone forever.

How different will I be when I’m 75?

Aw, hell, I doubt I’ll make it that far — though both my parents are pushing 80, and with modern science being what it is, who knows?

I’m 50 and I hate it, but what choice do I have but to accept it? Fifty came and it will go. Just like 51 is coming, so too is 52 and 53.

Rinse. Repeat.

So, yeah, I hate birthdays — at least my own.

Thankfully, there is only one a year. I just wish those years would stop going by so fast.




The Agony of Being Word-less

(Photograph: Max Oppenheim/Getty)

(Photograph: Max Oppenheim/Getty)

There’s an old joke about a plain white piece of paper.

What is it?, the artist asks anybody who would listen.

The answer: “It’s a polar bear in a snowstorm with its eyes closed.”

I’m not very artistic, so I can’t come up with a clever quip as to why I haven’t banged out a blog post in this spot for the better part of two weeks.

It hasn’t been for a lack of trying, or a lack of things to spew on about.

For some reason, though, the spark just hasn’t been there to do it.

And when you write for a living I find that troublesome.

Some people might call it writer’s block. I’ve had writer’s block, and I’m not quite sure it’s that.

And, it hasn’t been because of a lack of topics either. My professional career has been sent on a tangent that could be written about 100 different ways. But the transitional phase being what it is, I’m along for the ride right now and letting things play themselves out. I don’t want to put the cart before the horses, or lead my editor’s to water in hopes they don’t drink, or add your own odd idiom here.

A title for a blog post came to me not long ago. “The Day The Music Died … Again.” It came within minutes of the news that Prince Rogers Nelson, AKA just “Prince”, had died. I could have written 1,000 words on my feelings about that.

Only not a single post came in the hours, days or week after.

Just the polar bear, sitting in the snow storm, with its eyes closed tight.

My guess is the bear simply didn’t want to see the writer struggling to find his words, but what do I know about polar bears? If they shit in a snowstorm, certainly that would show up on the page, right?

There have been other things, as well. Facebook friends disappearing. Poof — here yesterday, gone today and tomorrow. I suppose if they were true friends, in the present-day sense, I would have had a phone number to drop a line or a text, saying, “Hey notice you’re facebook profile disappeared. Hope you are well.”

But I didn’t even write that.

I’ve been writing for work and that’s it.

Have-To stories, instead of I-Want-To tales.

This morning, I came here again, with nothing really to write. So, I figured, why not write about nothing.

By doing that, the page is no longer just white.

Call it me kicking in the door and just writing about something. Anything. Even if it’s nothing.

Put two letters together … “o o” … and the polar bear can have eyes.

And there is always tomorrow.