Last night my husband showed me a local Beaumont news story about a woman died in my hometown as she tried to stay afloat in the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey. The little girl was rescued alive, but the mother was unresponsive. I shook my head. The next morning, I saw a post in the Facebook group for my high school senior class about the tragedy. Photos appeared in the comments and that’s when I fell apart: police had identified the woman who died as my friend Collette.
Articles about her death were published all over the country. The LA Times called her death “a true testament to a mother’s will.” The NY Times headlined her as “Drowning Mama.” I don’t mention these descriptions because they’re wrong, they’re all true, but because it felt strange to read about someone I knew described as a near-anonymous victim.
Many people in my senior class had trouble remembering her. They dug up old yearbook photos and confirmed she did indeed graduate with us at West Brook Senior High School. That’s understandable, you can’t know everyone you went to high school with. But I knew her, and I’d like to write down what I remember about her before she becomes another Facebook profile memorial.
I don’t remember how I met Collette. It must have been soon after I moved back to Texas, and we were friends from middle school until we graduated from high school. We ate lunch together when we had matching lunch periods, went to the movies, showed up at each other’s parties, had sleepovers and hung out at the mall. I can see her sitting on my couch, or my bedroom floor, chatting the night away about nothing in particular. One night, just for fun, I recorded our voices and played it back.
“Turn it off,” she said. “That conversation was boring the first time.”
One day I took a plastic frog to school and pretended to pick it up from the ground. I told her I’d caught a real frog and when I tried to show it to her, she backed away. I tossed it at her and she squealed and ran off. When she came back I admitted it was plastic and she gave me that smile and rolled her eyes. At lunch, I left the frog on my soda can while we went to the food line and when we came back, a group of kids were circling it. Thinking they were crushing a real frog, they smacked the can and spilled soda all over Collette’s food. She was very forgiving.
She was late for every movie. All of them. Not “missed the previews” late, not even “thirty minutes in” late. She would show up a full hour into every show. I usually let her pick the film and she’s the reason I saw Curly Sue and Threesome in the theater. Threesome was so bad, I leaned over near the end and whispered, “This is awful, let’s just go.”
She folded her arms and clenched her teeth. “I paid to see this movie,” she said, “and I’m gonna’ watch it.”
I didn’t argue with her, she’d paid full price to see half a movie. I sat back and watched Stephen Baldwin have an awkward sex scene because fair was fair.
People gave her a hard time about her weight. “You have such a pretty face, they tell me,” she said once. “You would be so pretty if you lost weight. That just, uch…” She didn’t need to put into words how vicious and useless it was to say things like that. Collette was tougher than the people who tried to define her by her body.
Collette and her mother were close. One year her mother rented a hotel room for her daughter’s birthday and invited a group of us to stay. We watched Single White Female and scared ourselves to death. There was cake and a sparkly chandelier from Party City and we stayed up too late and it was one of the best nights of my life. Collette loved parties.
Dooney and Burke handbags were a must-have among affluent girls at my high school. We weren’t affluent girls, but Collette’s mom gave her the money to buy one anyway. There was only one store that sold them at Parkdale Mall and they had a reputation for using saleswomen to intimidate teens into leaving the store. I didn’t want to shop in a store like that but she wanted me to go along so I went with her for support. She marched right up to the counter and picked out a purse without paying any attention to how the saleswomen were looking at her. Collette was fearless.
I tried to find pictures, but I haven’t yet. Pictures were physical back then. I did find the note she wrote me in our senior yearbook. It read:
Well, it’s four years later and soon we’ll be off to college. I can’t believe we’re SENIORS. We’ve had a lot of fun over the years but it seems like we’re always busy. Good luck in college and the future. Have fun and remember you only live once.
Ps. Stay in touch.
We didn’t. Every graduate in 1994 knew how hard it would be to stay in touch in a world that had stopped writing letters but hadn’t yet discovered cellphones, Facebook and e-mail. I went out of state and she went to Lamar. She became the kind of medical technician her co-workers can’t stop raving about. An entire hospital of medical professionals in Port Arthur, Texas is grieving her tonight.
When Facebook took off, we found each other again and I followed her life from a distance. She had a baby and I thought, “We’re both mothers now, look at us.” On August 27, I was working late and I saw a Facebook notification pop up that read, “Collette Sulcer has marked herself safe from Hurricane Harvey.”
“That’s nice,” I thought. She was in Beaumont, not Corpus or Houston. She was safe.
Except a few hours later, she wasn’t.
I’d been thinking about Collette a lot lately because I’ve been writing about her. I’ve often written about her, under different names and characters. She exemplified how to be a friend, and I admired her honesty, her positivity, her support and her compassion. Collette was someone I wished I could be more like.
I hope Jordyn reads this someday, when she’s older. I’d like her to know what her mother was like when she was young, that she was a hero who loved her more than her own life, but that she was also a person worth knowing who uplifted everybody who knew her. They deserved more time together.