My friend died yesterday.
I’ve stared at that sentence for ages but it doesn’t seem any more real.
Dying – I think the word’s the problem. I’m not going to be able to express this clearly and definitely may end up offending someone so for that I can only apologise, however, this is all very new to me. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve experienced death before – I’ve lost both my grandfathers and just this year I lost my grandmother – but this is different. It seems like it would make more sense, be more acceptable, if she hadn’t “died” but had “been killed” by some malignant outside force or presence. Dying seems almost passive. She wasn’t a passive person. Dying just doesn’t make sense. We talk of phones in terms of dying: “oh my battery’s dead – anyone got a charger?” Dying implies drained, worn, all useful power and function used up. She wasn’t used up.
She was 28.
28 seemed a million years away when we were in sixth form, trying to talk surreptitiously during our sociology lessons. When Amy Winehouse died and joined the “27 club”, I got that it was very sad but somehow 27 still seemed remote back then.
My friends are all getting married and having babies. My husband and I went to five weddings in one year just two years ago. It doesn’t fit that we’re texting one another now about death.
Death and this girl were polar opposites. She was as vibrant and happy and full of joy as it was possible to get. At school she was always smiling and laughing – she had a fantastic sense of humour and loved life and fun – she had no self-consciousness or awkwardness. Whenever I hear the song “Hey Ya” I see her dancing, kicking each leg out to the side alternately, smiling away and laughing. Even during her illness she smiled and smiled, posting cheery updates on Facebook (until the last time she went into hospital a couple of months ago) and doing kind things for her friends. I could blame Facebook for the fact that I lost real touch with her, but the fault lies with me. The problem with a social media platform is that it actually removes the social interaction from the people. I saw what she was up to, mentally wished her well, “liked” her photos and status updates, but didn’t actually think: “Hey, I should really catch up with **** sometime.” I didn’t realise I needed to, because Facebook displays all of our lives to our friends. It removes the necessity for a good catch up. Then she got sick and it didn’t seem appropriate to organise a catch up.
I’m not going to dwell on the what was and what should have beens though, that’s not what this reflection is about. This reflection is about moving forwards and learning from this awful event.
She was full of joy and always had a kind word and thought for everyone. In sixth form, a friend and I discussed her once and we’d agreed that she was beautiful. She was more beautiful, we concluded, because she didn’t know she was beautiful. She didn’t have an ego, and her personality was beautiful too. People have been sharing memories of her and one illustrates perfectly the sort of person she is. Another inpatient at the hospital was sad so my friend ordered a pizza and they had a pizza and film night in the family room. I’ve tried hard to think of a time when she wasn’t kind and I honestly can’t come up with one in my experience of her. I remember having a gossip at high school but there was nothing malicious or unkind. I wondered if it was my own skewed and long ago memories giving me that impression but the comments posted by hundreds of people all concur.
Some of us who knew her have made a promise to ourselves – to not take anything for granted and to live life to the full. We’re not talking going crazy but just appreciating what we’ve got. Her husband has lost his best friend, his soul mate and (in his own words) his hero. Here are the rest of us girls getting anxious about not having our own houses or babies yet. Here are the rest of us working crazy hours and spending no time at home, collapsing into bed exhausted only to get up and do it all again, lucky if we even remember to hug our other halves. Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?
We’ve been confronted by our own mortality.
When we were laughing and joking and gossiping and falling out and making up at high school, we never would have dreamed that any of us had anything other than a long and exciting life ahead of us. Now, as a teacher, I watch my students bicker and argue and say unkind things to one another (my students are generally lovely but they are still hormonal teenagers and you can’t avoid that fact) and my heart aches. I wanted to say “Stop! You don’t know how long you’ve got!”.
She was so vital, so joyous, and now she’s frozen in time – immortalised in our hearts and memories as she was when we last saw her.
We owe it to her, we owe it to ourselves and to our husbands, wives, partners, friends, families to treasure the wonderful gift of life that each of us has been entrusted with. It’s a privilege and we must respect it as such.
I would encourage everyone to take stock, to avoid taking things for granted and to ensure that your priorities are right. More than anything, smile often, love much and be kind to those around you. If I can influence jut one person in the positive way she influenced hundreds, I’ll have achieved something special. More and it’s simply remarkable. Try to be that person for someone else.
Rather than lament the fact that I was lazy about keeping in touch, I’ve promised myself not to let it happen again. Rather than let work rule our lives, we’ve promised ourselves to spend more time with those who matter. Rather than feel sad that we don’t have some things, we’ll feel grateful for the things we do have. Rather than disrespect our bodies and our minds, we’ll take care of them. We are still here, our mothers still have their daughters, our partners still have their other halves. We were all lucky to be touched by her in some small way (I hadn’t seen her face to face for years but she’d still had a lasting impact on me) and those who were among her closest friends, and those who were her family and became her family when she married, are luckier still. There’s a poster at work with a definition of a hero and part of it read “gives us an example to live by”. She does count as a hero and we could do much worse than live by her example.
It’s now a month since she passed away and I can only just bring myself to post this. In the month that’s passed, however, I’ve kept my promise. I’ve worked less at home, spent more time with friends and have caught up with people I haven’t seen for years. A few of us who knew her even met up a week ago, just a couple of days after her funeral. It wasn’t a sad affair – we laughed and joked and caught up and remembered her. We toasted her memory and I wasn’t surprised to learn that others have also had feelings of guilt at not keeping in better touch. What we also have in common, however, is a determination to live life to the full and treasure those around us.