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6:11 p.m. - 2003-12-16

THE BRILLIANT SILENCE

My first kiss was with a girl named Jessica Boyer.

It took place inside a cardboard refrigerator box at the age of seven.

Jessie and I had lived on the same street all of our young lives and were born four months apart. Our mothers had been best friends since high school and somewhere stashed inside a box deep within one of my mother's closets there are countless photos of Jessie and I in the same baby carriage, at birthday parties, at Halloween dressed as Fred and Wilma Flintstone. We were truly inseparable … if one of us was outside playing, the other one was right alongside them. We even used to spend the night together, staying up and reading books out loud and playing games. While my male friends shunned the girls at that age, I never really thought of Jessie as a "girl". She was simply a friend.

One summer day, her family had purchased a new refrigerator. Jessie's dad tore the bottom off the box and put it in the backyard for us to play in.

We turned the box on its side and crawled in there, rolling Hot Wheels around inside of the box. Out of the blue, Jessie stopped playing with her car and asked me "Have you ever kissed anybody?"

"Sure," I said, wheeling my car around. "I kiss Mom every night."

"No," she said. "I mean, REALLY kiss somebody that's not in your family."

I couldn't say that I had. At the age of seven, kissing was something that little boys didn't really want to do. Kisses were usually saved for elderly relatives and your mother.

I answered no again.

"Do you want to kiss me?" she asked.

I remember thinking, "What is wrong with this girl today? Why can't she just shut up about this stupid kissing and play cars?"

I was a little nervous because I had heard that you get babies by kissing. No matter how mature I may have been for my age, I still knew that I wasn't ready to be a father. I explained to Jessie that if we kiss, she'd have a baby.

Jessie assured me I was wrong and that she wouldn't have a baby.

And then she kissed me.

It wasn't much different than kissing my mother really. A closed-mouth peck on the lips. No big deal.

Maybe it was the darkness of the box … the seclusion from the rest of the world.

But it made me want to kiss her some more.

So we kissed for several minutes. Then we went back to playing Hot Wheels and never kissed again.

Fast-forward a year to the summer of 1970, when we were both eight years old.

I went down to Jessie's house to play and she was getting in the car with her Mom. She had to go to the doctor but told me we could play when she got back.

Cool.

I rode my bicycle for a while, stopping to pick up particularly fancy rocks and long sticks like most little boys did.

Jessie never came home that day.

The next day I went to Jessie's but nobody was home. I asked my Mom where Jessie was and Mom avoided the subject.

It was maybe a week or so … honestly I don't remember the time frame here, but it's not important.

I was watching "Dark Shadows" on TV when Mom came in the living room and told me to turn the TV off.

After a little protesting, I got up out of the swiveling chair and turned the TV off.

At that point, Mom did her best to explain to me that Jessie had something called "leukemia".

I remember asking Mom if leukemia was bad and Mom basically fell apart in tears. Jessie was just as much a part of our family as her own and Mom had been trying to console Jessie's mom for the last few hours, but what do you tell the mother of an eight year-old that's been diagnosed with leukemia? "Everything will be better soon?"

So I didn't see Jessie for several weeks. Her family went down to the St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis for what seemed forever. I missed my friend, but I knew she was getting better down there because she was in the hospital. They make you better at the hospital. Ask any eight year-old kid ... they'll tell you.

When Jessie came back, she looked different. Her skin was pale and her hair was … not hers. It was a wig. She had already lost her hair to chemotherapy and was now wearing a beehive wig which was not something that looks particularly appealing on an eight year-old girl.

Third grade had already started and had been in session for a few weeks the day Jessie came back to school.

I talked to her the night before and she was excited to come back to school because her mother had bought her some really hip clothes to make her feel better about herself: a white turtleneck sweater, a red mini-skirt and some thigh high boots. She looked like Twiggy with a beehive. She looked older and more mature than all the other girls in the class.

I was already in my seat and Jessie was walking down the aisle to sit in the seat next to me.

Frank Wilson burst out laughing when he saw her and said loudly "What happened to your hair?"

Jessie was overcome with emotion and ran from the room.

I was so angry that this idiot said something about my best friend that I pushed him out of his chair and began slapping him hard on the floor until the teacher pulled me off of him. He was so surprised he didn't even try to fight back.

I was taken to the principal's office in tears where Jessie was already waiting for her Mom to come pick her up. She was crying and looked so helpless as she sat there on the bench by the door while the teachers were gently consoling her.

I didn't get in trouble for beating up on Frank. My mother came to pick me up and for once she didn't yell at me for getting out of line. She just drove while I tried not to cry.

We continued to have a strong friendship. But Jessie's condition dictated that she and her family make the 12-hour drive to Memphis more and more often.

The chemotherapy made her so sick that she would vomit up to 10-12 times a night.

When she was home, she didn't feel like riding bicycles or playing outside anymore. She just wanted to read. So we became insatiable readers, reading Bobbsey Twins books out loud to each other, trying to guess what would happen next at the end of each chapter.

On December 19, 1974 … Jessie Boyer, my best friend and first kiss, passed away at the age of 12 from leukemia at the St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

On December 22nd, everybody in the small farm town of 1,900 people came to the visitation and funeral to pay their respects. People were standing in the aisles of the church. It was my first funeral and I tried and tried not to cry because I was 12 now. Twelve year-old boys are too old to cry.

But this was my best friend's funeral.

My first kiss.

And if the truth needs to be admitted aloud … then fine. Jessie Boyer was my first love.

Against my parent's better judgment, I was allowed to see her in her casket. She looked so sickly yet beautiful. It was the only time I ever saw her wearing makeup. She looked like a hundred year old 12-year-old girl if that makes any sense. So young … but so old.

To this day, I still miss Jessie. She was such a beautiful sweet girl who I'm sure would have matured into a stunningly beautiful lady both inside and out. I've often wondered what career path she would have chosen and if we'd still be as close as we were growing up together.

One of the things I've done in my life that I take the most pride in is the amount of work I've done to benefit the American Cancer Society. In 2000, I managed to raise over $10,000 in a single month for the organization. Although I've never made a big deal about it, I've always done it for Jessie.

This Friday will be the 29th anniversary of her death.

I have taken the time to think about this precious child nearly every single day of my life.

This Friday I will think of her for a great portion of the day.

And each thought will be accompanied by the brilliant silence of her seven year-old smile.

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