She was my first soulmate. I told her that. I told everyone else that too at her funeral about eight years later. I am rapidly approaching the point at which the time spent without my friend will exceed the time I spent with her. The differential astounds me. Even now, six years post-funeral, as I plan my wedding I feel the sting of loss when I think of our dusty-but-not-fading friendship.
She was my best friend. She defined my formative years. We bonded over hating our Algebra teacher, who, in retrospect, was really not all that awful. We passed notes, we had sleepovers, we had an entire spiral-bound notebook full of inside jokes, which I still have in a plastic bin at my parents’ house somewhere. We couldn’t say, “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear,” without giggling. We stayed up late watching Anne of Green Gables. We both had LiveJournals at one point and spent an entire afternoon one day watching a Spongebob Squarepants marathon. We were the same height, but she had C-cups and was a healthy weight, whereas I was about ninety pounds until I was sixteen. She had curly hair, I had straight. I had glasses and freckles and we both had braces.
We had just reached that point where we went to the same college, and I had a verbally abusive boyfriend, and we grew apart for a little while. Until one day she went to the doctor with her mom because she never got over having a case of strep throat. From there, it was shock and tears and central lines and chemo and Phenergan and broad-spectrum antibiotics. I handled it for a while. I went to the hospital, I made the jokes, I raised money for St. Baldrick’s. And then I slowly, but most assuredly, failed. I was an emotional wuss. I wanted to be “in college.” I didn’t want people to feel sorry for the girl whose best friend had the C-word (and also whose father was going through his second abdominal surgery). I lived on campus, so I wanted to go to parties. I wanted to be in a sorority. I wanted to spend my time flirting with chance and shirking responsibility and basking in the glow of the unemployed. I did not want to sit uncomfortably in a stale hospital room watching her throw up into a kidney shaped plastic bin that is the shade of pink that only hospitals know how to make ugly. I did not want to wait tables at a deli, and I did not want to have to figure out what work-school-life-friends-cancer-surgery-balance was while I was still a teenager. I pushed it off as long as I could.
Days of not calling turned into weeks which turned into months—until one day I went to the hospital where her mother was waiting for me in the lobby and told me that I couldn’t come up to the room. My best friend didn’t want me there. I had betrayed her. I had waited too long. The time I spent floating on my indecision and procrastination was definitive enough for her. She didn’t want a friend who couldn’t be by her side staring at a tiny TV while doctors filled her with enough pain meds to cause her to try to snatch the designs off of her fleece blanket. She was angry with me for making the mistakes that I didn’t consciously know I was making.
I had to court her back. I apologized, I cried, I texted. It took several weeks, but finally she called me after I sent her a signed Post Secret book with a note telling her she was my person. Things went back to the way they should have been, only now it was tinted with her impending death. We didn’t speak about it. How can you?
The days prior to her funeral were filled with more logistics than I probably realize. I was asked to write her eulogy by her father. I was in a haze of memories and my head was filled with Anne of Green Gables quotes, often not relevant to anything I was experiencing… “You ARE Mr. Cuthbert aren’t you?” and thinking about how I’d look bangin’ with red hair. I settled on our phrase for ourselves, “kindred spirits” as Anne with an “E” would say and wrote our stories down to share. I am sure I have it tucked away somewhere still in either a box or a long-lost hard drive—I doubt I will read it again.
As the days following her funeral passed, I went through the apartment that we shared and sterilized it from all of the things that her parents would never need to know. I packaged our Christmas decorations with her mother into another plastic bin, that has yet to be opened and still sits at her parents’ house.
The good days came more often and the bad days were fewer and I began to think—why can’t we say the word “death”? Sometimes I think that we see it as a bad word instead of as inevitability. We should allow it to fill us with peace when we have found love, any love. Not even soul-crushing head over heels gooey love, but just the place that your soul has found peace. We should allow it to fill us with unrest when we have finally recognized that we are better than the circumstance that surrounds us. Is it wrong to ask death to be our encourager?
I gained decades when I witnessed my kindred spirit take her last breath. That experience defines me.
It is the reason that when I think about the possibility of losing my husband, knowing that I would survive if it happened, it makes me love him even harder. It defines the way I breathe, the way I speak to others; it is the reason I floss and the reason I don’t go to tanning beds. More importantly, that experience is the reason I finally realized that I have value and a voice and that I am worthy of good things. I am alive, and hence, I can make a difference. I am of consequence!
I had to brush away the guilt of happiness while I experienced every milestone and rite of passage she would never reach. I had to maintain a relationship with her family for their sake and for mine. One day I might even open those plastic bins.
And I will be damned if her mother doesn’t show up to watch me try on wedding gowns tomorrow morning, and cry with me at my wedding when we both think of what she is missing.