My best friend from adolescence died when she was 32 years old. She had one of those terrifying urban-legend sort of deaths that I always hoped didn’t actually exist.
She had a 7-month-old baby and was suffering from headaches, so she went to the doctor. The doctor told her she was dehydrated from breastfeeding. Two weeks later, she was dead from a brain tumor no one had any idea existed. Her name was Brooke.
I met Brooke when I was in 7th grade. We went to a Christian school in a very Christian city, and we were inseparable. We had come from similar backgrounds, both raised by single parents (my mom widowed, her dad divorced).
Brooke was funny, independent, smart and unfailingly quirky. She was not afraid to be different. Before I met her, I had been badly bullied at my previous school, so her fearlessness was refreshing. I never developed it myself, but I always envied it.
I’m not sure a week went by in middle school and high school where she wasn’t at my house for 3 nights or more. She went on all my family vacations with me.
Like creepy twins, we started to develop our own language, changing the meanings of actual words so that people could understand what we were saying, but could never really understand what we were saying. Onomatopoeia, melt, sock…these and many other words had coded meanings.
Brooke and I had no secrets, and we had very few fights as well. When we did fight, it was typically a byproduct of the incredible amount of time we spent together, and after one night apart we were back to normal.
Brooke was virtuous, but never a goody-two-shoes. We would often joke that I was the devil on her shoulder and she was the angel on mine.
We smoked an entire pack of cigarettes on my 18 birthday. We used cusswords all the fucking time. She really didn’t like the taste of alcohol, but one night in college she took a liking to some coconut rum and had three drinks. She spent the rest of the night doing cartwheels down the hallway and reciting really long passages from the Bible from memory. The next morning she said: “Never again.”
During the last week of school, when everyone was signing yearbooks, someone wrote in both of ours, “May you never have reason to shed a tear.”
Brooke and I laughed until we cried in the bathroom, mocking the spoiled platitude.
“May nothing of consequence ever happen in your life.” “May indifference be your guiding star, and complacency be ever at your side.” “May your tear ducts be burned shut due to war crimes; be cool; stay in school.”
Neither of us could imagine why someone would wish for something so one-dimensional.
But then the unthinkable happened. We stopped being friends.
I left for college in another state after a year of staying in my hometown and sort of attending college but mostly working and playing. Brooke was going to stay in our hometown, and when I returned things would go right back to how they had been, we assumed.
But they didn't. I came back a devout atheist. I had abandoned nearly all of the beliefs I was raised with over the course of the year, and I was terrified. Brooke had joined a youth group she really loved, and, if anything, was more religious.
I never stopped loving her, but we stopped catching up and staying in touch. We stopped celebrating birthdays together.
It was a dark time during a dark time. My new beliefs were sort of the nail in the coffin as far as my family was concerned. I had piercings, my hair was dyed black, and now I didn't believe in God. I was officially someone who didn't have my shit together.
It slowly occurred to me that losing my religion also meant losing a lot of my close relationships. It is difficult to maintain intimacy with someone when they think you deserve to burn in hell eternally for your choices, and you think the God that they speak to is something they are conjuring out of thin air.
It happened everywhere, all at once. I didn’t want to date Christian boys anymore. Most of my family and I no longer agreed on anything, and to my surprise, their involvement in my life turned out to be reliant on those shared beliefs.
People in my life who had promised they would be around forever were in my rearview mirror so fast it made my head spin. It felt like the ground underneath me had completely broken loose. I was scared and hurt and extremely lonely.
There is a song that I sang often in Bible Camp as a kid, and the lyrics went “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love/They will know we are Christians by our love.” If I’m being honest, the way I could tell they were Christians was by the amount of unbridled animosity I experienced once I departed from the faith.
I am fairly certain that if I were to become a Buddhist now, or get into Taoism, my atheist friends wouldn’t blackball me out of their lives entirely the way that my Christian friends did.
Not everyone in my life felt it necessary to distance themselves from me. There are a few that stood the test of time and for them I am eternally grateful.
Brooke wasn’t one of the ones who abandoned me, but something had palpably changed. We were so close before, and now something immense was different. As best friends, Brooke and I fit perfectly. As acquaintances, our relationship didn’t make sense anymore.
She called me to catch up, I didn’t call her back. She called again. I didn’t call her back. In my head, it wasn’t a permanent decision not to see her anymore, but time makes fools of us all, I suppose. I have to live with the fact that I just didn’t know what to say, and that was a good enough enough reason not to say anything. Eventually, I didn’t know her phone number anymore.
The day that she died, I woke up and told my husband that I had dreamed about Brooke the night before. I dreamed that our class was getting together for our 10-year reunion (which we never had), and I saw Brooke there.
She told me she had waited to get married until I could come to her wedding, and we caught up about everything and did all her wedding planning together. I was so happy to see her, she was so happy to see me, and everything felt just like it always had. There was no weirdness, no distance.
My husband later said he thought maybe Brooke sent me that dream.
A few hours into my day, another old friend from high school Facebook-messaged me that Brooke was in the ICU and probably would not survive the day. We immediately drove down to the town where we grew up and where she still lived.
I found out Brooke had a son 6 weeks younger than my own. The information came in fast about her quickly deteriorating condition.
Very graciously, her family allowed me to see her, even after all this time had passed. Her pastor warned me before I was walked back into her room that she would look very different, that she was on a ventilator, and that she was not the same Brooke anymore.
I braced myself, but if anything, what shocked me was how much the same she looked after almost a decade. Her hair was in a half ponytail / half bun that she often wore when we were young. It was shiny and thick and beautiful. Her hands were tiny and felt cold when I held them.
She looked so peaceful, just like the millions of times she slept well past noon at my house during high school. Everything was the same, except she was no longer breathing on her own.
I held her hand and immediately started sobbing. I apologized for the time that had passed. I promised to tell her son how funny she was, how amazing she was. I told her I loved her and that I hoped our sons would be friends. I told her all the things that would have meant so much more if she had been conscious to hear them.
And then my time was up, and I left the room.
I attended Brooke's funeral with my family. My husband was happy that there was video of her, since he had never heard her voice before. I was happy that Brooke’s life had continued to be so full after I lost touch with her. She had an extremely happy short life from what I can tell.
And now for most people, life will return to normal. But I don’t think mine ever will. I’ve started haunting our house. I can’t sleep because I’m sad about Brooke, so I pace and cry, from room to room to room in the dark.
So many of my childhood memories died with Brooke — they exist only in my head now. They have lost a lot of their reality without someone out there who could verify that I’m not making up all the weird things we did.
It would feel tidy to end this with a plea to tell everyone you love them while you can and not to take people in your life for granted, etc., but I don’t have any advice for anyone. I’m the one who doesn’t have my shit together.
I am just waiting for closure, waiting to feel better, remembering all the sad and happy things that make up Brooke in my mind.