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Ten years ago, my girlfriend was murdered. I've told the story so many times that it feels more like regurgitation than storytelling when I sit down to share it. The short of it is that she was in the wrong car at the wrong time, riding with a friend on a late night grocery run where they encountered a seemingly friendly stranger. Her friend offered to give this stranger a ride back to his apartment. This stranger repaid the kindness by shooting them both once they’d pulled up to the complex.
Anna* was shot first, once in the back of the head at point-blank range, and then her friend three times. It was a week to the day after my 20th birthday. Her friend survived.
Anna had a bullet lodged in the upper part of her brain, a bullet that had torn through the portions of her mind that dealt with memory and recognition, and the swelling was too bad to remove it. She didn’t survive. She died holding my class ring, which still had her blood encrusted on it when her parents returned it to me out of her personal effects.
It was like living a bad Lifetime movie for all the cliches we managed to hit up. The night they took her off life support, the night I was saying goodbye to the person I thought I’d be with for the rest of my life. I still remember the chipped dark green nail polish she was wearing; I’d seen her paint it on just a few days ago while she made me watch a film she’d just gotten in from Netflix called "9 Dead Gay Guys." I’d thought it was awful and she’d loved it.
Her hand was warm, and even with the machines strapped to her mouth, she looked like she was sleeping. I didn’t let go until they made me, two people on either side holding my shoulders to keep me from collapsing as I was walked out of the NICU.
They never caught the man who killed her.
In the five years we’d known each other, we’d never gone a day without communicating. This was a time before text messaging was common, the day of the old fashioned note passing. We would fill spiral-bound notepads with notes to give each other between periods, swapping as we met after every class. When we went on family vacations, we’d write each other a note or letter every day. We’d stay on the phone until all hours of the night. She was my every day. We’d planned on moving to New Orleans together later that year, and even had a house picked out.
I’d always considered myself very mature for my age. I tended to be the more “adult” member of our group, cautioning against risky life choices, organized and together. The one with a plan, the one that had it settled and figured out. I knew exactly how my life was going to go right up until the point where it was all shot to hell.
Nothing in my education or experience or plan had prepared me to deal with this. When you’re 20, you feel invincible. Death happens to people who are older, to people who live high risk lives. Death happens to people who haven’t been cautious to avoid it. Death certainly doesn’t happen to people on their way to buy groceries.
But it did, and it ripped me apart in ways I still don’t know how to describe. It felt like a cold hand had reached inside me and scooped up all the parts of me that made me worthwhile, that made my life worth living. I had always based my value on how together I was, on my plan for the future, and now I had no plan. I had no idea how to exist. How do you survive as half of a person?
I knew I had to, though, so I did the best I could. I took advice, good and bad. I read books on how to handle the waves of feelings. I tried my best to let myself feel what I was feeling. I went to therapy, got on anti-depressants. I spent nights in a fetal position on a cold tile floor, sobbing and apologizing to the ghost of someone who couldn’t hear me anymore. I questioned everything about myself. I learned the value of true friends who gracefully tolerated me during my ugly moments and lost friends who only wanted to know me for the drama of being friends with the girlfriend who survived Anna.
I thought for sure this was the path to solving my grief, to understanding how you moved on from something like this. To figuring out how to get your life back on track.
But five years later, I hadn’t. I couldn’t. I was miserable, working at a job I hated. I’d dropped out of college and still had no idea what to do with my life.
My first attempt at another serious relationship was awful. She’d spent a lot of our relationship implying that as fat and ugly as I was, I was lucky to have her; that I’d never find better. It had ended predictably horribly, leading me to a heartbreaking revelation: Perhaps this was it for me. After all, what are the odds that we meet someone we can see ourselves spending the rest of our lives with out of all the people on this planet? Someone that puts up with all our flaws, that loves you because of them and in spite of them? So what were the odds of that happening twice?
I should count myself lucky, I decided, that I’d gotten the chance to experience at all. Even if it died off early in life, it was more than a lot of people had. I needed to resign myself to accepting less.
For a very long time, my timeline was pre- and post-Anna. Did that movie come out before Anna died? Did Anna hear that song? Was Anna alive when our friends got married? My life oriented around this cataclysmic event that set my entire world on its side. I’d survived, but only technically.
Amidst a sea of my friends telling me how brave I was for carrying on without her, I felt like a fraud. Because I wasn’t carrying on, not really. I allowed myself to continue working at my dead-end job, one that often didn’t pay me or had paychecks bounce. I’m still working on rebuilding the credit I wrecked horribly on credit cards I had no way of paying off. I made some half-assed attempts at going back to school, but what was the point? I had no future.
I couldn’t tell you when exactly things changed, but the seeds were planted around year six. The process was slow, painfully slow, but I could feel the misery of my old life slough off. I started embracing things I’d rejected before; things I had considered off-limits since Anna died were suddenly options again. Slowly, I was collecting myself, regaining parts that I’d lost and crafting some that were entirely new. They were tender, wrenching things, but eventually the memories became precious rather than painful.
Every day, I remember her. Every day, the world reminds me that she was here, that she was an important and irrevocable part of my life. I remember the way she’d puff out her cheeks at me when she was mock-angry, the tiny freckle on the lower lid of her left eye, the way she’d cackle when she did something particularly evil that she knew would have me indignant, her pencil box full of sparkly gel pens and how she loved to write me notes with the colors that were the most impossible to read.
I still can’t watch movies where someone communicates with a loved one in the afterlife because of the number of nights I spent curled on one side of my bed, sobbing into a damp pillow and imagining all the conversations I’d have with her ghost.
I still love her, but I don’t live her anymore. These past 10 years, I’ve been trying so hard to figure out what I am now without her, to figure out who I am with this crucial part of me amputated and haunting me with its absence like a phantom limb. It was both the easiest and most difficult thing I’ve ever done, choosing to live for myself. Because first I had to acknowledge that I was worth living for, had to find some value in myself that wasn’t defined by me being unconditionally loved or being sure of my future.
And I finally have. It’s not a complete journey; I still have days when I wonder if I’m worth loving, days where the pain of her being gone comes up and punches me in the chest. But mostly I’m okay. Mostly, I’m living my life for me, back in school and pursuing a career in freelance writing. It had been Anna’s dream to become a professional writer, and now, here I am: doing it. But the best part? I hadn’t even remembered that until I’d already decided to do it.