I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write this. I don’t know if there are right and wrong ways to grieve, but I wasn’t sure about this way. I wasn’t sure whether I had any right to make myself a part of her story. I hadn’t spoken to her for almost a year – and wasn’t close to her for years before that. It seems wrong, in a way, that I would choose now to suddenly show that I care for her. I’m still not sure about it.
But this New Year when the clock struck midnight, she was one of my first thoughts – and I haven’t been able to stop crying since. And writing is the only thing that’s helped me begin to process the fact that this happened.
The world recently lost someone very special. Her name was Catie, and for a long time she was my best, closest, most treasured friend.
I met Catie in 8th grade science, when we were paired together for a project where we were supposed to build a bridge out of popsicle sticks. Whoever’s bridge could carry the most weight won – ours did not. But a friendship blossomed, and soon we were exchanging giggles in the back of the classroom and crushing on the same boys. By the last trimester of the year, we had several classes together and a shared friend group.
Every single thing reminds me of her. Even as I look around this room right now, there is a blanket draped over the back of my couch that she brought me from Africa. My Harry Potter books sit on a shelf in the corner of the room, and I remember waiting in line with her at midnight, in costume, for the release of the 7th book – then reading it together for 24 hours straight, no sleeping. I have a salt lamp, which calls to mind the class trip we took to the Wieliczka Salt Mine in Poland – when we snuck away to lick the wall even though the tour guide told us not to.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands more.
Not all memories were good, of course. We made mistakes, we had our fights, we enabled each other’s unhealthy habits. She taught me how laxatives worked; I taught her how to stick your toothbrush down your throat. But nonetheless, she remains a constant in almost every memory I have from age 11-on.
Later, she went away to school, I moved across the country, and we drifted apart – as these things happen. We developed new lives and new friends.
But even still, I would be hard-pressed to think of anyone else who’s had such a massive impact on my life. She was the one who taught me how to French braid my hair, how to do the “cups” song, and how to speak Pig Latin. The very first coffee I ever drank was after she instructed me how to order at Starbucks. She’s the reason I was introduced to theater – in fact, the reason I have most of my current friends even now. I’ve fallen asleep to The Office every day in recent memory, which is a show she had to beg me to watch because it was on at the same time as Grey’s Anatomy. My favorite food to this day is sushi – which I only dared to try upon her urging. She taught me to use chopsticks, to pronounce edamame.
Likewise, I introduced her to my obsession with John Lennon, and how to organize your journal so that thoughts are on the right and creative writing is on the left. I was the first of the two of us to kiss a boy, so in the back of a school bus one afternoon I taught her how to practice on her knuckles. Later, we began to hone our first political opinions together – having deep, philosophical discussions about life and liberty and human rights into the wee hours of the morning. I’ve only thrown one punch in my life, my first year of college, and it was to come to her defense.
I cut my bangs to look like hers, which is another way of saying that we both cut our bangs to look like Lizzie McGuire’s. I copied or stole almost all her clothes. I laughed at Stephen Colbert’s jokes before I understood most of them, because I wanted so badly for her to like me and think I was smart.
Even on this very blog, I reference her inadvertently almost once a post. In my recent post about rain, she was the friend with whom I skipped class to splash around in puddles. In another post, I shared the time the hottest guy in school called me (sending my heart aflutter) to ask me for her number. In a third recent one, about turning 30, I shared that a friend and I jokingly had a suicide pact at age 29. That was Catie. (That passage that gives me chills now, since she would live to see her own 30th birthday but would leave us the week before mine.)
She is wrapped around all these fundamental memories like a ribbon.
I try to preserve anonymity as much as possible here, since people don’t generally have much of a say in how they’re framed by my words, and I imagine they don’t carry about their lives thinking that they will appear later in a character in a story. But chances are good that if I ever mentioned a “friend,” where anything remotely story-worthy happened, Catie was likely that friend.
And yet, even with this rich shared history, people change. Circumstances change. Life happens – and for one reason or another, it isn’t always easy to stay in touch. The last time I saw her, it was right before I moved to Tucson. We ate at one of our old favorite sushi restaurants. I told her about a new guy I was dating, and within minutes she told me she didn’t like the sound of him. (Others in my life would wait years to share the same insight.)
I couldn’t tell you what else we talked about that night – and our conversations since were brief, digital, and sporadic. And now, I’m struck by all the things I never asked her. Did she see Fantastic Beasts? Did she like it? What about Cursed Child? I saw she found love, for which I am both grateful and heartbroken. How did they meet? What was their relationship like? What pet names did they have for each other? Did she travel? Was she happy?
The strangest things make sobs bubble up in my throat. A few days after she died, I chipped my nail polish and realized that when I had painted them – just a few days prior – she was alive. I could’ve reached out to her right then. Could’ve said hello while waiting for my nails to dry, but I didn’t.
It’s hubris to believe I could’ve made any difference. Of course I couldn’t. We were strangers by then, and even if we weren’t – how much influence can any of us expect to have over another person’s life? And yet still, guilt is sticky that way. I can’t shake it. I may never have made a difference, but I’ll also never know. No one will.
I received an unexpected outpouring of love when the news broke, which I wanted so desperately to reject. I felt undeserving of anyone’s sympathy, because I hadn’t earned it. She didn’t walk her path alone, but she walked it without me. What claim did I have to any pity? I abandoned her.
The next day, I woke up with wet, puffy eyes, like I had been crying in my sleep – but I didn’t remember dreaming of Catie. I dreamt of letting other people down – not showing up for things, letting my selfishness or impatience get in the way of being a good friend, and them never forgiving me for it. I cried again when I woke, conscious of my many failures as a person – as a partner, a daughter, a sister, a friend.
The forces that rule our universe are so brutally arbitrary – I can name no consequential difference between her upbringing and mine. We grew up within miles of one another. We played in the same parks. We attended the same schools. Our parents were good, Christian people. So why her and not me? Why couldn’t the universe have taken me down that path instead – and left her to be happy, healthy, and free?
Life trudges on – relentlessly, mercilessly. I had a book club to go to the very day after I found out. I had work on Monday. I had to respond to emails cheerfully, arrange for business lunches. There is no pressing “pause.” There is no “I can’t take this – not now, not ever.” There is no crumpling into tears after a client call (although there is a lot of crumpling immediately afterward). You must persist. Even as a tsunami crashes in your heart, even as the ground beneath your feet is shifting, the world carries right along as if this is just another day.
Catie, it’s hard for me to imagine a future where I don’t still think of you constantly. There is no memory, no holiday, no major milestone that you haven’t touched.
Every summer, I’ll remember lying in the hammock in your backyard during a summer storm, watching lightning lick across the sky in giggly excitement.
Every fall, I’ll think of the time we all went camping at Lake Jennings and genuinely had no idea what camping entailed – and sat in complete darkness because we didn’t own a flashlight or lantern.
Every birthday, I’ll think of the story you wrote and illustrated as a gift to me, documenting the tail of our friendship in the form of two fairy princesses.
Every time I’m compelled by a character in a book, I’ll remember the time when Edward left Bella and I called you crying (because you had already read it), begging you to assure me that everything was going to be okay.
Every Thanksgiving, I’ll remember the time we brought my dad’s stuffing in Tupperware for a picnic at the park, but forgot forks so we scooped it out and ate it with our fingers.
Every Christmas, I will think of baking cookies with you, or riding in your dad’s flatbed looking at Christmas lights.
Every time I hear Simon and Garfunkel, I’ll remember playing “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her” for you on my balcony – smoking cigarettes and thinking we were invincible.
And every New Year, I suppose, I’ll think of all the New Years we spent together – or, more importantly, the ones we won’t.