A Goodbye to a Classmate Who Died Too Soon

Thank you for letting me know you.

Jul 30, 2014 at 9:00am | Leave a comment

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College me

The first time I met you, you were sitting on the washing machine in the laundry room downstairs in our college dorm -- or maybe that was me. When you spoke and when our eyes met, I immediately saw in you some kind of a little sister, a soul I immediately felt protective of and unabashedly loving toward. You had dark wise eyes. Eyes filled with secrets and joy and theories you didn't quite have the confidence to express into words to the world yet. Of course, you would. But right now, you were getting there. Right now, you were just listening, smiling, slyer than the rest of us. I was a year older than you at Northwestern. You were my friend.

When I was much younger, I was so very much like you, too shy to speak but oh the ideas racing through my head. My face would blush red. Your eyes would turn downward, embarrassed and shining with delight. When our eyes met that first time your freshman year as we shared a stack of quarters and a box of detergent, I saw the same secret twinkle when you smiled at me. 

I got one of those group messages on Facebook today -- well, just now, really -- letting me know that you passed away over the weekend in Chicago. I hadn't talked to you in some time. You emailed me once in the last few years, and I emailed you back, and it made me smile, but I didn't really think about it a whole lot more than that. I don't really think about people too often these days. Not in any way where I let those who are not my immediate family and friends take a large space in my soul. I can't bear it like I once did. My heart can't handle that much openness, and if it did, if I let as many people in as I used to in my younger years, I feel like it might sometimes break.

But you knew me when I was younger, when you were younger, too. We spent many nights in each others' dorm rooms. One summer you made a handmade newsletter you sent to all of your friends. Your peers were playing shoulder-padded corporate dress-up at their internships and you were making old-fashioned zines with articles and reviews and all of your favorite things pasted together. You loved Trent Reznor. You loved Depeche Mode. You had not one ounce of pretense in you.

Sometimes when I look back on it, I think you may have looked up to me, even though I didn't think I was anything much to look up to at all. Maybe you could tell I felt as timid as you did in my heart, but I had somehow forced myself past all that, and now I acted as some kind of gateway, the translator of the shy, the ambassador of the wild-eyed and the quiet, an advocate who could hold up a hand to say, "Just wait. Listen. This one has something to say."

We grew up, and I saw your ideas and your halting confidence begin to bloom. Once, as practice for one of our news writing courses you had to write a "personality profile" on me to turn in for class. I remember the profile you wrote made a big deal out of my swearing and my smoking cigarettes. I thought I had talked about the philosophy of life and being cool and alternative and I might have used the word "grunge" at one point. But you counted all my curses. You were in awe of these little details, these little tells. It was a revelation to see how you saw me, as this swearing smoking she-demon of a woman, and we both ended up in near-tears laughing at the absurdity of ever trying to capture someone on paper at all.

When we spent time together, your voice was so quiet sometimes I could almost barely hear you. You got this a lot. "Speak up," I would say, and then, encouraged by your very slightly raised voice and receptivity to my teasing, I would keep saying anything I could to get your smile to break, to ultimately shift the entire energy of a room. Your smile was truly a thing of wonder. I had never seen anything like it. To say it lit up a room is an insult to its life-giving properties. 

I remember, and perhaps this is why I'm crying so much right now, even though I have not talked to you in years and years, how sometimes, before I even had a chance to realize what you were doing, without any warning at all, you would just reach out and clutch my hand, like a little girl.

The first time you did this, it caught me so off guard, but somehow did not surprise me at all. I had never experienced this from an adult. It was so without pretense, so wrapped up in insistent love, it makes my heart simultaneously swell and break to remember.

I had never experienced tenderness like that, such pure natural abandon, from someone my own age. 

Then there came a squeeze. Your hand was communicating something to me that perhaps your words could not do justice to with quite the same force or power. So you reached for my hand. That said more than anything else ever could.

Today, at my job I have writing, one of my duties is to write a story once a week, and sometimes like this week, when I am off of work and not really feeling like writing, it is hard for me to pull together what I want to say. I try to think in terms of what people will respond to the most. What will people share on Facebook. So I wrote a piece. I had just finished it, just now, right as I got the message that you had died. And something happened that I hadn't felt in a while. I really wanted to write. I really wanted to tell you goodbye.

You did what you once did to me in college, you made me feel life.

I will be honest, the first time I read the note about your passing, I took in the news rather clinically. It was with the removed detachment of the media cycle. I thought how I often think: as a reporter. I looked at your Facebook page. I looked at your family's page. I Googled. I Googled your name and "2014." I read your most recent stories. I found no answers except one: I now approach tragedy first as a journalist, second as a human being.

When I was a teenager, when confronted with the specter of death, I was more likely to write wrenchingly maudlin poems about my grandma's passing that I would then beg to read aloud at her funeral. When I was even much younger than that, I would write scorching letters to God in crayon, asking why the little girl from church had to be killed by the drunk driver down the street.

But now I feel so much less. Everything, all of the tragedy I take in as a member of the media and as a member of the world, is organized and contained and put away in little boxes, contained and assorted.

My mind and my heart are mostly there to protect myself now, and sadness and happiness and news and events, they each have a box, they each have a place, too. Part of this makes sense. Part of this is to be strong enough to get through every day so that the sadness of modern life does not overtake me. Part of this is simple self-preservation.

But part of this is an insult to your memory, my friend.

When I read the news of your passing a second time, I read it as a human being, and I felt myself break. I remembered with sensory memory detail the unbridled tenderness that you gave me and so many others, when we were least expecting it.

It's hard to describe how I felt when you reached for my hand as my friend in college because I suppose I looked like I needed a hand. And I did. The gesture felt so innocent, so unconditionally loving it almost reminds me of when my dog will put his paw right on my arm, or when he will wriggle closer to me so that he's practically on top of my lap, because his body is already snuggled as tight against me as he can possibly be. Or I think of my niece when she was a little girl, and how she would ask me to scratch her back or she would ask me not to go or she would just love me with abandon. That's what I felt from you in a way that I don't know that I've felt from anyone else before or since -- anyone who was an adult, that is. You taught me perhaps more than any other person I've ever met, that those quiet halting words that came out of your mouth, always with the start of a wry smile appended, often with a question mark, did not mean nearly as much as the squeeze and the embrace that your hand offered at my side.

You are my friend, and you always will be. I just wish I could let you know, even though I can sometimes feel so lonely and overwhelmed and hopeless, just how lucky I feel to have met someone like you down in the laundry room of our dorm that day. There are days, I will be honest, when the most powerful connection I feel, the greatest happiness I experience is when some small little gesture of love is communicated in an authentic, tender and disarmingly loving way. It is something that you gave me without ever even trying.