As I read of Margo and Alisha tossing skittles to the boys during lunch, I couldn’t help think about my best friend from sixth grade, Alphretta.
Alphretta, my double-jointed friend who could comfortably sit with her legs behind her neck, loved to laugh as much as I did. Lunch time was always an adventure with Alphretta. Sometimes she had tang powder, which we would place in the front part of our mouths then blow out like a puff of smoke. Sometimes, she would bring wafers, which we would tear apart and rebuild so they had double the cream in the middle. And sometimes she brought cheese puffs. Those were the funnest days of all, as the boys in our class loved to catch them in their mouths. I loved being the center of attention when she handed me some cheese puffs to throw at the boys. Though most of my sixth grade was spent wondering if any of the boys would ever notice me, during these fantastic moments, I was noticed and appreciated—if only for the cheese puffs I was tossing their way.
So is that who Margo is? My friend Alphretta? Well, yes…and no. Margo is a fictional character. So she is no one—and she is a conglomerate of many friends who have impacted my life and helped mold me into who I am today.
There’s Debbie, my best friend from fifth grade. Debbie and I would practice “flying” (i.e. jumping from the highest rungs on the jungle gym during recess. We would see how long we could balance on the bar that the teeter-totters rested on. And one time, when the sprinklers were running, we challenged ourselves to see if we could touch the sprinkler without getting wet. (Our teacher wasn’t thrilled when we returned from recess dripping wet.)
Debbie was also my first close-up experience with a serious illness. I remember returning from a piano lesson to see her big sister running while carrying Debbie’s limp body through the hall with a scared expression on her face. Debbie had fainted during P.E., and no one knew why. I remember listening to my parents discuss if I should be allowed to visit her in the hospital. “She’s her best friend, we have to let her visit.” And I remember sitting by her hospital bed as she told me about the chalky substance she had to swallow as hospital staff put her through a series of tests that eventually led to the discovery of juvenile diabetes.
Then there’s the character’s namesake. Margo, with her long red hair, didn’t fit into any of the clicks in high school, nor did she intend to. She was deeply intellectual, getting a kick out of watching political debates with me, both on television and on the campus where my father was a professor. Together, we worded a question that little high school me posed to a guest debater at an exclusive luncheon my father had been able to get us into. Our question got the room buzzing.
But she was also a free spirit. Going to the mall was our default Saturday night activity (when there wasn’t a debate or trivia party to crash at the college). Once, we found some nearly matching strapless dresses that we just had to have. After making the purchase, we headed to her house for a spontaneous photo shoot. My mother quickly bought me a little jacket to make my dress modest enough to wear in public, but on the day those photos got passed around at school, I noticed a little extra smile on some of the guys’ faces—validation that I’d be able to get their attention in other ways besides throwing cheese balls.
And of course there was Shauna, my friend who would stick close by my side as we made the transition to adulthood. Thoughtful and considerate, she would pause before speaking, never uttering a word that might cause distress. We met in line for senior portraits. Both of us were short with young-looking faces. I was a new student, and so she assumed I was a lost freshman. I assumed the same of her, but neither of us said anything. It wasn’t until we got up to the photographer and both had our pictures taken without question that I realized I had possibly met a soul sister—someone who knew the inner pain of not appearing to be the age we were. It was a few weeks later at a Bible conference that someone said, “I bet the two of you have been best friends forever!” We looked at each other, smiled, and nodded. Nearly 30 years later, she’s certainly earned the title of forever friend!
But the inspiration for this book wasn’t one of my peers. It was a little girl named Ellia that was diagnosed with cancer when she was barely old enough to read. A boy at school had punched her in the arm right where the cancer was located. Her swelling arm alerted her family and medical professionals that something was wrong. Her cancer was caught early. I remember when the chemo started. Her energy was drained out of her. She would watch kids playing. Her eyes said she longed to play with them, but she didn’t have the energy to do anything more than snuggle up with her mother and watch.
Today, Ellia is a high school student who laughs and enjoys the company of her friends much as I did growing up.
Ellia is Margo. Shauna is Margo. Margo is Margo. Debbie is Margo. Alphretta is Margo. And perhaps you are Margo too. For Margo is a character resembling anyone who has been strong, faced adversity, and found the joy in life despite it all.