It was an unexpected punch to the gut to find out yesterday that one of my oldest friends had died from cancer. I don’t remember hearing she was sick, which makes this even more shocking. Inspired by Benjamin deForest’s beautiful piece on Facebook, which rings so true to me, I want to celebrate Erica Ponte as well, and keep alight this spirit who was an indelible part of my childhood.

People I meet love to hear that I grew up on the Vineyard, as surely no one lived there year round, and are even more amused when I say my elementary school class in Chilmark (in our old two-room schoolhouse where we rang a bell to signal the end of recess) consisted of six kids. There was me, Elizabeth, Heidi, Mike, Keith and Erica — three boys, three girls, a perfect symmetry. We learned to read together, to write together, to sing and act in school plays together. We also grew together, and there were the recesses behind the New Room on the old basketball blacktop where we submitted to dares of kisses or holding hands. Three boys, three girls. The math worked.

I was frequently paired with Erica in these innocent rites of childhood, and I remember a sweet girl whose shyness rivaled my own, and even at those young ages we both took comfort in that. When it came time for a school dance, or playing spin the bottle at a friend’s party, Erica and I looked to each other as a safe harbor in the swirling storm of adolescence.

I remember vividly the first time I went to Erica’s house for a birthday party. Her two older brothers, John and Rodney, were imposing figures in my youth, well-versed in a world of heavy metal and BMX bikes and sculpted with a terrifying toughness. Pink Floyd blasted from their room, and I wondered why they thought they didn’t need no education. Her innocence contrasted brightly with the dangerous world of experience her older bothers seemed to inhabit.

Throughout the years, I came to know the unbreakable bonds that form living in a small town, no matter the differences. Erica and I were part of small group of Chilmark kids that were fortunate to grow up in that place at that time, with a larger net of friends and family watching over us, shaping us, guiding us, ensuring that we would someday understand the cosmic importance of sharing that 02535 zip code together. And we did. It was evident when we ran into each other over the years. A shared smile, a knowing fondness of our histories, a connection that did not need be acknowledged to be felt.

I have come to believe that the souls or spirits of those we have loved make themselves present through nature. I’m a religious cynic, but after my mom died, I became convinced her spirit visited me, and still does, in the form of ladybugs. Always at times when her memory is strongest. At the memorial service for Jeannie Fischer, Erica’s aunt, a bird flew into the Ag Hall, interrupting her eulogy, and I guarantee not one person who was there doubts that bird carried Jeannie’s spirit on its wings.

So this morning when I was making breakfast, I was not surprised to see a male cardinal sitting in our magnolia, bright red — like Erica’s hair — against the white snow on the ground. It seemed to stare right at me, summoning memories of Erica and our golden childhoods and convincing me again, that the connection to our fellow humans isn’t solely measured in flesh and blood. Her spirit lives today as much as yesterday. As much as it did 10 years ago. As much as it did on that basketball blacktop in sixth grade.

Max Hart lives in Maplewood, N.J.