She was every greeting card illustrator’s vision of the angelic blonde child: milk-pale skin and eyes as blue as polished slate, perfect ringlets of a blonde so blonde it was nearly white. She was the girl that girls like me—fat and loud, with our bowl haircuts and our Goodwill dresses—should have envied. But she was too sweet; not that kind of tactical sweetness that pretty girls learn early on, but a quiet decency that many adults would’ve done well to acquire.
Our last names started with the same letter, and whenever she and I were assigned as class project partners, I could enjoy the peace of simply focusing on the task at hand and not steeling myself for the first snicker about how Willy had been freed to Perry Hall Middle School. In the luxury of this safety, I became rather animated about my ideas (a less charitable word would be spastic), but she nodded with a bemused sagacity that acknowledged the futility of asking me to pause. She was the recorder to my presenter, and somehow what ended up on the page I read aloud was the most well-reasoned combination of our ideas.
I never knew her well enough to tell if she was shy, or just the kind of person who chose not to speak until she had something worth saying. As we passed through grade school into high school, we weren’t in the same classes and I found my own tribe of boys who loved Tori Amos and girls who smoked in the bathroom; still, whenever I’d pass her in the hallways, I gave her one of those smiles-and-nods that expressed a lingering gratitude I wasn’t fully aware of yet. She responded in kind, and something in her smile—something easy yet purposeful, something very present without calling attention to itself—reminded me of water.
She was a rare surge of warmth I’d feel when reflecting back on my pre-college, pre-fumbling toward adulthood days. Reflections that happened with increasing frequency as the bullies of yesteryear sent their Facebook friend requests, even though—to paraphrase Beatrix Kiddo—nothing they’d done in subsequent years, including getting knocked up, changed anything. Mostly, though, she belonged to a time I’d had the luxury of forgetting.
I learned of her passing, two days before Thanksgiving, through Facebook. The same way I learned of the cancer that killed her.
She’d been just another name I’d scrolled past on my feed, eager to see how karma was treating one of my ex-boyfriends or who else from my MFA program had published (not that I would be so petty as to keep score). One photo forced me to stop and really look at her page. Her hair had been shorn into a Mohawk; perhaps it was the way ethereal white-blond had darkened into an earthy wheat-blond, perhaps it was the way her hair tufted up from her peach-fuzzed scalp, but she looked even softer than I’d recalled. Though her face was tilted away from the camera, toward the longhaired cat nuzzled against her shoulder, I could see that she’d applied eyeliner and a frosted lip-gloss; the understated glamour conjured those staged candids of Marilyn Monroe in her bathrobe.
Breast cancer had been our grandmothers’ disease, and, as we grew older, our mothers’. When we put our feet in the stirrups, we were worried about HPV and other ominous combinations of three little letters; we were steeling ourselves to ask about pre-pregnancy IUDs or staring at our first ultrasounds.
Yet there she was, talking about side effects—cankles and mouth sores and hot flashes—with the same mix of straight reportage and casual wit the rest of us reserved for students who want to negotiate a B- into an A+, SUV drivers, and those people who just stand with their grocery carts and don’t get that “excuse me” means “move.” Between posts about drugs with names like over-muscled executioners and multiple –ecthomies, her descriptions of everyday nuisances like running late because of the rain attained a cinematic poignancy. I could see her shaking out her umbrella, noticing a man noticing her and feeling like she was one of the immaculately rumpled ingénues whose every gesture, however effortless, was still fortune-favored.
Staring at a screen, I came to know her far better than I ever did in the breathing world. Before, she’d only existed in the prism of my experience, vanishing into the ether when she wasn’t augmenting a memory. She probably thought of me the same way. Each of us—whether we’re high-school hellions turned stay-at-home moms or the only woman in the R&D department; whether we’re dog walkers who were physicists in our home countries or Ivy Leaguers who left law school to become wilderness guides—we are the stars of so many undiscovered moments that, cannily edited and subtly scored, belonged to classics.
There are very distinct instances when the very nature of Facebook—yes, the same forum that allows your junior high lab partner to post pictures of her daughter’s poopy diapers and lets that dude you shared a few workshops with ask his feed if liquor and pills or a straight razor to the jugular would do him in faster—grants us merciful distance from the clamoring voices. Sequestered in my apartment, I could take in news of her cancer, and of her death, without worry of tempering my reaction for the sake of the bearer of bad news. I could suck in my breath and say “shit.”
As the remembrances rolled in, I saw that my former classmates—the children whose petty cruelties haunted more than one therapist’s office—were just as dumbstruck, angry, and afraid as I was. We used the words “fight” and “kind”; we were deeply saddened; we wished we’d known her better but we were grateful for the times we got to share with her, however brief.
Trite-but-truisms are tiny turns on a high-pressure valve; they let out just enough steam for fleeting relief while leaving an uncomfortable, insurmountable density. Roiling inside the tank are the realizations that someday, there will be no more chances to get it—whatever it may be—right.
There will never be another Sunday afternoon when the laundry is done and the house is clean (or as clean as it’s going to be) and there’s nothing left to do but sit with that book our coworker lent us. There will be no more first dates or date nights; no more Christmas lights; no more music and no more movies we’ll watch every time they’re on; no more thunderstorms and no more fireworks; no more memories of the baby’s first steps; no more smiles on the dog’s face. We’ll never again see the bumper of the muddy pick-up in front of us catch the colors of the sky.
We all have things we love too dearly to ever imagine leaving behind.
With the benign arrogance of the perfectly healthy, we filled her wall with vows to savor the little things and not let them get to us as if she died just so that we might live more gratefully. What else could we do?
I spent the days after her death brewing coffee, reviewing proofs, making small talk and walking the dog, but my routine was now infused with a sudden alacrity. How would I regard the world, if, after the doctor closed the door behind her, she looked me square in the eye and didn’t smile? If, months later, she said, “It’s spreading.”
The girl I went to school with should be where the rest of us are at twenty-nine— realizing, while dusting her apartment on a random Tuesday, that she can’t be called a girl anymore, that she’s actually at an age that once seemed ancient and aloof. She should be going on great dates with men who never call again and shitty dates with men who won’t stop texting; all the while heartened that at least she has her friends. She should be wondering why she hasn’t gotten promoted faster; she should be telling herself that thirty is the new twenty. I have time, she should be thinking. I have time.
On Thanksgiving morning, a station wagon nearly sideswiped me as I exited the merge lane off I-83. After I punched the horn, the other car sped up to pass me and I could see the driver, a redheaded boy who might’ve just cleared his teens. His passenger, who looked the same age (most likely a college roommate invited to spend the holidays), flipped me the bird. I’d like to say that I’m the sort of person who laughs these things off, but I’m not. Usually, though, the worst I’ll do is fight finger with finger, trade tit-for-tat with fuck you and fuck you too.
But this time, the insouciance of the gesture—nothing even happened; no need to be a bitch about it—and its assumption that because nothing did happen, nothing could’ve happened, turned my body liquid with rage. My heart synched with the revving engine as I zipped within an inch of his back bumper, my palm flattened against the horn.
I’m not sure what I was trying to do, exactly. They were just kids. I was just as careless when I was their age. I suppose I wanted them to realize that we’re all we’ve got in this world—and given how quickly we can lose control of a car, how quickly blood work and biopsies come back positive—we owe each other a little mindfulness.
Then I felt my dog’s snout against my elbow. She leaned forward in the back seat with her front paws crossed like the ankles of a proper lady, and licked my arm.
“I can’t pet you now, baby,” I said.
In that moment, I forgot whatever it was I was trying to prove (and in the worst way possible) and changed lanes.
I told this story to a friend after she said she’d seen my status message and was sorry for my loss. I told her how I’d sworn to be a more appreciative, empathetic person.
“And not even a week later, I’m still an asshole,” I said, as though it was a punchline.
“Being an asshole is one of life’s great luxuries,” she replied, not missing a beat.
We laughed until our eyes brightened with tears. My belly tightened with the pain of being too full. The sharpness subsided into warmth that thrummed under my skin with the tenderness of a young plant nosing through soil.
“But you know,” she said, adding “seriously” with a lightness that ended the joke without killing the mood. “So is taking the time to be nice.”