About six weeks ago I had lunch with a dear friend whom I met in Governor’s School in 1972, the year before I was to head off to college. Governor’s School was a kind of summer camp for gifted students from all over North Carolina, held each year on the campus of Salem College in Winston-Salem. I had never been away from home for such a long time and felt all at odds in the opening days, though the awkwardness quickly passed as I made friends.
Among those friends was Sheria Reid. I was introduced to her by one of the other students and quickly became part of the circle of friends that gathered under a tree on the yard to outdo one another in wit while Sheria played guitar. Never content to provide mere accompaniment, Sheria used her music and her personality to illuminate the lawn, and I grew to rely on her big laugh, her amazing smile, her easy sarcasm, her sardonic take on the world.
As it happened, we both entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the same year, and ended up sharing a co-ed dorm by the time we were both sophomores. Once again I attached myself to the inevitable circle of friends that formed around Sheria, who held court in her small room, dressed most often in comfortable caftans, seated or reclined regally on a bed that looked altogether unworthy of her pose.
She was an unforgettable friend, a person to whom others were drawn, who nevertheless possessed a fierce core of loneliness to which I was sometimes witness. Later, when we reconnected as middle-aged adults, I learned some of the reasons for her occasional plunge into feelings of isolation. She had come from the same part of the state as me, the eastern coastal plain, and like me she was going through the years of school integration in North Carolina. Since she was black, she faced the racism of white peers at school; since she had been mostly educated in Catholic School before she went to high school, she faced animosity from black students as well. She found herself caught between two worlds.
I learned much of this at our lunch back in mid June. We met in Raleigh at an Indian restaurant with a fragrant buffet, and there we sat for hours, nibbling, drinking, talking, and giggling, only moving to pay our bill and leave when the restaurant began to shut down the buffet line. By then we were the only people in the restaurant. I paid the bill while Sheria stepped to the restroom; when she returned, she was a bit piqued, because, she said, it was her turn to pay. So we laughed and agreed she would catch the next lunch tab, and we hugged and said good-bye.
Only a few weeks later I read a shocking post on Sheria’s Facebook page – Sheria was a fierce Facebook warrior, commenting on a wide range of subjects, railing at the stupidity of the human, critiquing events involving the North Carolina state legislature, where she worked, and sounding off about American race problems, injustice, favorite music, good books, and sometimes just posting plain silliness.
But that post I read in early summer was written by Sheria’s sister, who had been called by the people at Sheria’s job that morning when Sheria did not show up for work. Her sister found her collapsed in her apartment, suddenly gone from us all, without warning, unfairly removed from the vast number of us who loved her and needed her voice in our lives.
Since that day I have been stunned and a bit lost. Sheria was one of those people who cannot be replaced, who carved a space for herself that will be empty forever now that she is gone. Through the power of the internet I had come to feel her as a daily presence in my life. Now that same internet shared with me her death, her sister’s grief, and the loss that will be felt by those who knew her.
I have never written a eulogy before, since I have not lost anyone quite as dear to me since my brother died decades ago. So I wanted to mark Sheria’s passing with these words, and to say that I will miss her as long as I live. I am so grateful we were able to get together one more time, and even more grateful we had no idea it would be the last time. Sheria, take care of yourself, if you are still out there somewhere. I hope our paths can cross again. I owe you a great debt for all you shared with me over the years. And it’s your turn to get the lunch check, too, so please remember.