She died when I was sleeping safe in a warm nest of blankets. When her little car caught a bad patch of ice and lost control of its destiny, I was breathing softly, steadily, my fingers fearlessly, guiltlessly grasping the arm of my red teddy. Her heart stopped while mine pattered on, dreaming in the dark. That is always the first thing I remember about the night my friend, Jennifer Viveiros, died. I feel so much guilt for behing eighteen, so young and carefree. There was no gut feeling, no psychic alarm sounded mid-dream that something unthinkable had just occurred. I fell asleep early, and I slept through the night. How painfully average it all was!
The next thing I remember about that day is that I didn’t expect to cry. I woke up to three missed calls and an invitation to join a memorial group on Facebook, but I didn’t even go numb when I saw the blocked and bolded R.I.P. before her name. Just the opposite, my mind was on fire with activity. I was sure it was all some sort of sick joke, like when Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn crash their own funeral. Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. I looked up R.I.P. on UrbanDictionary, convinced it meant something else–something “funny”–in our generation’s abbreviated slanguage. Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. With the steady determination of a conspiracy theorist, I typed her name into the Google search bar. The first result was an article about an eighteen year old girl with Jenn’s name in Jenn’s car who had gotten into a fatal accident near Jenn’s college, but I was still looking for the punch line. Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet.
It’s funny, but it took less to convince me I was talking to Emma Watson on Neopets when I was 11 (it wasn’t her) than it took to believe that Jenn had actually died. I wasn’t crying when I turned off my computer and finally faced the facts. I wasn’t crying when I walked upstairs. I wasn’t crying when my hand reached out to push open the door to mom’s makeshift study in the spare bedroom. I wasn’t even crying when I sat down on the bed among piles of stale memories in cardboard boxes. To be honest, nothing about that moment felt any different until I opened my mouth and heard my voice. What I meant to say was “Jenn died,” but all I said was “Jenn–“. Her name, a name I’d called so easily across noisy school hallways, a name we shared, suddenly sounded so wrong, so foreign that my body rejected it. Caught by surprise, I choked on it. I swallowed it down, afraid that if I set it free, it would be gone, and I cried into my hands. There was no punch line here.
The rest of the story has no real chronology. I went to the high school to make sure our old teachers knew what had happened, knew when and where they could pay their respects, expecting them to be braver than me. Perhaps it is unfair to have heroes, to build a fellow human up to such a height that it causes more harm than good when they come crashing down. There was a teacher I admired. To be honest, I admired almost all my teachers in high school, but this one was different. He was strong; he was motivational. He defended his students against bullies and overzealous flirtations in the lunchroom. His encouragement pushed little chicken-armed me all the way up a rope in the gym. He taught me to strive for greatness rather than mediocrity, and I was so proud to have been his student. I needed him then, and I left disappointed.
The last time I talked to him was the day of Jenn’s viewing. He refused to come. He said he couldn’t face the fact that someone so young had died, a fact I had been drowning in the past few days. He’d lost a student, but I’d lost a friend, and, at that moment, I was losing a hero. I was speechless. I had come to him for courage, but he had nothing left to give. I blamed him then, but I was young and rash. I don’t blame him now; he was just a human. In the wake of his weakness, I learned to find my own strength and selflessness. I left the program from her funeral in his mailbox so he would have something to remember her by, and I moved on.
Some people hoard things–food, furniture, clothes. I hoard memories. There is nothing I willingly let go. I stumble upon them like little landmines. I see her smiling face in an old photo, and I remember standing in a room alone, watching those same photos flash across a projector. I remember standing in the dim, orange light and getting so…angry. How could a meaningless PowerPoint presentation capture such a vivacious life? There were even some pictures I’d taken when we’d been laughing and playing around, and somehow they’d become static. In one and a half seconds, the picture of her pulling a face with her cello was going to be replaced by a picture of her at prom. It would go black after that while the presentation reset itself and the loop of her life started all over from the beginning again. I watched that presentation for what seemed like an eternity, until all that existed was her smile, until I had convinced myself that if I stayed there long enough, that smile would walk right out, all Cheshire-Cat-like, and her body would start to grow around it, substantial, warm, and alive. I could have held her hand again, but I didn’t stay long enough. Someone else grabbed my hand and we went to see her body.
I didn’t cry while we waited in line to say goodbye. I’d read on Wikipedia that that would be rude to her family, that I was supposed to provide the support. I hugged her mom, and we talked about Jenn’s favorite colors (purple and black) and we talked about whether or not I (a college student now) would be allowed to play with the school orchestra at her funeral. I didn’t cry until I saw her body and it wasn’t smiling. She was holding her cello bow and her hair was as beautiful as ever, but it just wasn’t right, and I hated it for trying. I remember holding my friend very close because we were both shaking, and I remember Jenn’s mom telling us that it would be okay, and to blow our noses or we might get sick. Like my own mother’s advice, I didn’t listen.
There are other things. When I hear Pachelbel’s Canon in D, I remember crying so hard I couldn’t see the notes to play them properly. My heavy tears made salty streaks all across the wood that you can still see now, but only in a certain light, and only if you know what to look for. It’s my little secret. I see purple flowers, and I remember how silly I felt carrying them into the funeral with me, but how right it felt to hand them to her grieving mother. I bought them because they were purple, but they were more than that. When people used to send messages encrypted in the type of flower, the flowers I’d brought were symbols of love and patience. What was Jenn but loving and patient towards all of us? I’d been waiting for a sign, something to tell me that everything was going to be okay, and there it was, nestled in a dozen purple asters I’d picked up on a whim. Her body was “no longer with us,” but her spirit and the love she showed us, the things she taught us, were and are perhaps more present than ever.
I had a dream a few nights ago that she came to visit me in Oberlin. She showed up at my door looking a little different, with black streaks in her hair, but I knew it was her. I tore through the door and attacked her in the biggest hug I think I’ve ever given anyone. My arms wrapped around her shoulders, my legs tied themselves around her knees, and we fell onto the grass laughing. I woke up thinking about how much I’ve changed and how guilty that makes me feel, even four years later. I have new glasses, new clothes, a college degree, my first kiss, a different job. For the first time since high school, I forgot to take a framed picture of us to Oberlin with me. It’s sitting in a box somewhere with other memories that don’t mean as much as that picture. I woke up so sad that I couldn’t take her with me, that she stayed in my dream, that she stayed in that box.
But here’s the thing I realized: Jenn died while I was sleeping, but she was still there when I woke up. I didn’t leave her behind. She was there in the love and support of my friends. She was there in the purple flowers I gave to her mom. She was there in the family that dug me out of a snow drift on my way home from the funeral while I sat in the car and tried to stop crying. She was there in the sound of my tennis shoes striking the pavement when I went on a run to clear my head. She was there, and she’s still here. It’s time for me to stop feeling guilty about living, to stop running away from opportunities and happiness because I’m afraid I’ll forget. I know, no matter how old I get, I won’t have left her behind in that endless, ageless loop of old photos. No matter how far I go from home, I can’t leave her behind in the flimsy box of notes we wrote to each other. No matter how many times I dream about her, only to open my eyes and find myself alone, there’s no way I’ve left her behind, because that would be impossible. In the love we show for each other, she’s still here, and I know she is as proud to know us as we are to know her.
It’s time to start living.