Sitting in the window seat on a return flight from Washington, DC, to Phoenix, my neighbor turns to me and asked me “So, what were you doing in the Nation’s capital?” I have replayed this moment in my head countless times in the five years since it occurred. The nice man’s voice repeats in my head clear as day, an innocent question seared in my memory forever. I think I somehow squeaked out a response of “visiting a friend,” before holding back the biggest breakdown of tears with the most effort towards composure I have ever forced myself to endure. If you have ever sat on a plane after a tragedy, after saying goodbye with the future unknown, after leaving a piece of your heart in the city you are departing…big, big hugs from this girl to you.
Rewind to a few days prior. I woke up to a voicemail from a friend. “There’s been an accident. Call me.” I woke my husband up, completely panicking. She picked up immediately and said that our lifelong, dear friend – her absolutely best friend- had been in an accident, and it was bad.
This was a friend of ours we had known since Kindergarten. Not a friend we had IN Kindergarten, not someone we knew SINCE kindergarten, a FRIEND we had known SINCE Kindergarten. Through Halloween Class parties in 3rd grade, awkward dance parties in 6th grade, volleyball teammates, limos together on prom night, visiting each other in college, onward to putting on dresses to dance at our weddings, we were friends. Of course, there were ebbs and flows of the friendship, of the circle of girlfriends who at times were inseparable and at times beat to their own drum. But there were no two ways about it, she was a vital part my life for 25 years. Twenty-five years.
Over the course of the next day, we tried to get as much information as we could about what had happened. Bits and pieces of the story emerged as we were able to contact a local friend who was trying his best to compose himself and provide us with details regarding the situation. My friends didn’t want to say it first. I finally blurted it out: I said to my girlfriends “We have to go there.” That was the most real moment of my entire life up until that point. We somehow in the blur of it all coordinated flights from all around the country and flew the next morning.
I walked into the ICU waiting room. Her mom was there, saw my luggage and said “You came straight from the airport?” We both lost our breaths. This wasn’t a trip where you’d check into a hotel, freshen up, and sight see on the way. Every single moment counted. Her beautiful, brave, strong mother took me into the hospital room with her. I was the first of our friends to see her like that. The next day was the last day I would ever see her. I would do anything to see her again.
I sat on the return flight a few days later, knowing for pretty certain I had just said goodbye. The second to last time we were together, we had been laughing and celebrating life together at a wedding. I wanted to tell the man next to me that that wasn’t her in the hospital bed because goddammit it just couldn’t be so. I wanted to tell him that my favorite memory of her was when we went to a Florida Gator game together, and I’m pretty sure I have a picture of that night somewhere, but if I can’t find it I’m going to punch someone and what if I seriously can’t find that picture? I wanted to tell him I had never experienced a death of a friend and during this one single moment as our plane is up in the air my innocence is literally being lost. Looking back, I want to tell him that in the coming weeks, months and years, textbook Grief will take a hold of me and my friends and not NOT not let go. I want to tell him now that five years later I sit here and write this story, sobbing as hard as I did as when I walked into the elevator on that ICU floor as the doors shut in front of me and I knew a death was near. I want to tell him- and you- that bad things happen to good people, only the good die young, and NOT everything happens for a reason.
In the spring of 2011, my dear friend was walking her dog on her neighborhood sidewalk before work one spring day in Virginia. She was struck by a car, a reckless driver. She died two weeks later of the injuries she sustained after a valiant struggle at the age of 29. We all miss her every day.