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On a dark day, celebrating a good life

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Once a year for several years, I sat across a table from a slender, graceful girl named Whitney DeMoraes Hendrickson. This happened during my annual pilgrimage to Colorado Springs, when I would have dinner with my old college friends, Dave and Clelia Hendrickson. Dave is a political science professor at Colorado College and the author of several essential books on American history and foreign policy. He and Clelia also authored three very fine offspring: Whitney, her twin brother Wesley and their younger sister Marina.

As an annual visitor, I never had more than snapshot-type impressions of the kids as they grew. I do know the house was perpetually filled with children and laughter, their friends moving easily in and out of the place, always on the move. Whitney was a particularly calm presence amid the occasional chaos, with a sly smile, impeccable manners and a great deal of sensitivity about other people's feelings beneath the usual adolescent silliness. I had no idea of the kind of impact she had on so many people until last week, and now I am both saddened and amazed.

Whitney died on March 17, a month shy of her nineteenth birthday.

She perished in a strange, horrific accident outside a convenience store three blocks from her house, when an out-of-control SUV rammed a pickup, forcing it into the gas pumps and causing a fire. The details of this, if you can endure them, can be found in this article from the Gazette. It's the kind of cruel, sudden snatching of an innocent life that makes you question the possibility of anything like justice in this universe.

I went to the service for Whitney at a packed Shove Chapel on the Colorado College campus on Friday, March 20. I expected to find her family and friends devastated and angry. They were all hurting, all right, but the mood was quite different than anticipated. And it said a lot about Whitney and the people in her short, happy life.

It is a truism at funerals of young people to talk about how special they were, how gifted, how precious. Surely every child is, as Garrison Keillor has intimated, above average, but the specialness of Whitney was special indeed. I knew she was popular -- her father had related to me some of her delicate navigations amid different groups at Palmer High School, all of whom had some claim on her -- but I had no idea how loved she was, or how much love she was capable of doling out. Ten of her friends came to the pulpit and spoke eloquently, amid sobs, of how much she had meant to them. They all considered her their very best friend. And they all had treasured memories of her artistic and adventurous spirit, her loyalty and humor, her joy in simple things and lack of pretension.

She never had a mean-girl phase, her friends and family insisted. The absolute worst thing she ever did, apparently, was to fake a series of love letters in the sixth grade between her best friend and her brother Wesley, convincing each that the other was madly in love -- which strikes me as sheer genius.

She loved photography and lacrosse and travel and the Colorado mountains, the lack of which had been a strong lament during the past few months, her freshman year at Grinnell College in Iowa. "To me, she was the mountains," one of her friend declared. "When no one else around, she was. When no one else listened, she did."

Whitney's friends had descended on the Hendrickson house over the past few days, dragging her parents and siblings out of their despair. It was a phenomenon David Hendrickson acknowledged when it was his turn to reminisce about his daughter. "In the extraordinary love and affection we have received in the last few days from so many, we have felt Whitney's spirit wafting in amongst us and through us," he said. "It has offered glad tidings for the grief-stricken; consolation for the inconsolable; an intimation of true immortality for we of mortal flesh. Thank you all so very much for being the carriers these last few days of that redemptive spirit."

It's an old lesson, but one worth repeating. Sometimes there is no escape from sorrow. Only the possibility of sharing it with others, and thereby making it a little more bearable. The tributes to Whitney were like that. They didn't make the loss any less terrible, but they made me realize the kind of joy in the moment that this young woman shared with so many, and why those moments count for so much.

Now, more than ever.

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