The Phone Rang…

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“Bee” was displayed on the called ID of my flip phone.

I knew what this meant. I knew, before hearing any words, exactly why I was receiving this phone call.

The girl on the other end was my best friend, a best friend, I guess. One who came and went, just like the rest of them.

We had been close since we were young. The three of us (Jamie, Bee and myself) were closest to each other in age among our cousins, the girls anyway. We grew up as a unit, always together during family gatherings, always sharing secrets.

An eternity flashed before my eyes as I hesitantly flipped open my phone to heed the news sure to come.

“Jillian?” she asked, as if hoping the answer would be ‘no.’

“Yes?” I asked, my voice trembling in anticipation.

“She’s dead.” Bee declared, “Jamie died,” she reiterated.

I knew, of course, exactly who she was referring to without any names being spoken. This was a call I knew would come one day, only I hoped it wouldn’t be so soon.

“I knew it,” I whispered as I felt my knees go weak and buckle beneath me.

I knelt on the ground outside of the old library in Copley Square. Homeless people and tourists stopped to stare. I felt their eyes but I couldn’t care if I wanted to. Please, I thought, watch me in pain. Absorb this misery and take it from me, I begged them silently.

My friends lifted me up, one person under either arm, and walked me to the train. We headed home and went our separate ways taking various buses to our different corners of the city.

One friend of mine took me to her car and drove to my front door. I couldn’t get out. I couldn’t go inside. My family would never understand what I was feeling and I knew they would try. I could not watch them struggle to hide their pain in order to subdue mine. Nothing they did would ever numb the pain of losing your best friend.

Jamie had been more than my cousin. She was more than my friend, really. She was my confidant. She was the only person I trusted enough to confide in about my secrets. She was the only person who could ever relate to feelings of mortality and desperation for a second chance to do things right.

She died a virgin and having never kissed a boy. She received no degrees and she missed countless opportunities for personal achievement. She was a prisoner of her circumstances and she still managed to smile, day in and day out.

In some ways we were opposites, I guess, while remaining similar. My life was never being taken from me, I simply wanted to give it up. This is why, when Jamie glared at me in disgust as I confessed my lack of desire to live, I felt so foolish. What was wrong with me? I had a whole life at my fingertips and I was pushing it away.

Jamie shifted my perspective. She gave me the motivation I needed, I could hardly wait to start living my life. I promised her that I would never make an attempt at my own life again. A promise I wouldn’t keep, but had every intention of doing so.

As I sat outside my home, contemplating whether I should go inside or sit here forever, I began to cry. Not heavy, heaving sobs, but rather a slow trickle of tears from my eyes as I finally took a breath after holding it for too long.

The earth was shifting below me and I felt completely out of control. I looked at my friend and, without saying anything, she told me she would wait here for me. I went inside and gathered my things. Inside, I found my mother and my aunt, anxiously awaiting my arrival. I brushed them off as if nothing had happened and begin frantically filling my overnight bag.

I threw in some clean underwear and socks, a t-shirt or two, some sweatpants and my toothbrush. I told my mother and aunt that I would see them in a couple of days, but that for now, I just had to go. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t even think, dammit.

We drove, avoiding any arrival at any place any time soon. We listened to music in silence and when a song I had never heard before began to play, I nearly lost it.

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I promised you the world again
Everything within my hands
All the riches one could dream
They will come from me

I hoped that you could understand
That this is not what I had planned
Please don’t worry now
It will turn around

I couldn’t help but think “I just need more time, just a little bit more time and it will all be fine.”

The truth is, no matter how much time I wanted, I had all the time in the world up until that point. I felt overwhelmed with guilt. I wasn’t there for her enough, I wasn’t a good enough friend. There was so much more I could have said or done. So much left for me to regret.

I broke down in sobs and dry heaves. I was inconsolable for about two days. I wouldn’t move, I wouldn’t eat. I could not go home. I needed to preserve my memories. I needed to keep them fresh, terrified they might fade away all at once.

The day had come when I would have to put on a brave face and confront my fears at last. The funeral home was a small house, behind the train station, camouflaged by passers-by. We all blended into the sea of black garments. People stood in line all the way around the corner. They would patiently wait their turn to apologize to her family for her untimely passing, to jot their name down on the list of grievers.

I walked around to the side of the building and in a secret little door. My father was family friends with the undertaker, every family passing was commemorated here. I was quite familiar with the grounds.

I entered through that side door and walked up to the main floor. Aunts and uncles chased smaller cousins while others sobbed and hugged eachother. I scanned the crowd for one face in particular. I was looking for Taylor, Jamie’s little sister. I needed to make sure she was okay.

“Okay” is a term used loosely, here. She was breathing, she was not crying, she was okay by whatever standards I had set. I squeezed her as tight as I could, whispering in her ear, “If there is ever a thing you need, any thing. I don’t care what that thing is, you tell me. Its yours.”

I know this was a strange thing to say and a strange thing to hear, but I know she understood. I stepped away to hug her parents. I tried my best to avoid eye contact with the grieving woman who I could never console. She grabbed hold of me as if she would somehow reach her late daughter through me.

I hugged back, wishing with all that was inside of me, to comfort her the way Jamie would have. I silently exerted any memory I had of the sweet essence of this girl, who lay lifelessly in the casket at the head of the room.

Ignoring the line, I stepped up to the casket. I knelt, in acknowledgement of her passing; standing again, I reached for her hand but hesitated. This was not her hand, this was a hand that looked like hers. That was certainly not her face, it was lacking a smile. This was a stranger laying before me. I turned my face in disgust and headed to the corner. I sat, hyperventilating, until I saw a pair of men’s shoes facing me on the ground.

I looked up to see a familiar face. Tony and I were close throughout our childhood. We stopped having sleepovers when we were about 13. A year before Jamie would find out she had cancer.

I stood and hugged the boy who I once, at the age of 6, denied a marriage request from. Forgetting the long pause in our friendship, we retreated to stories of innocence and childhood. Nostalgia filled the air for a few brief minutes until reality came tumbling back like an avalanche.

There were tears in his eyes. This man who I had known since we were mere infants had never once shed a tear of sadness. I had seen the boy angry, scared, hungry, and frustrated. I had seen him cry to get his way, to get out of something, or to get the frustration out. I had never seen sorrow seeping from his corneas like slick syrup from a sad sapling.

I balled up the tears welling behind my eyes and I threw them back at him like we were playing a game of catch. It came out like a painful joke, the likes of which I do not remember. What I do remember, though, was how good it felt to hear his half-assed laughter emerge through tears. He stepped outside to have a cigarette and seemed to be in generally better condition for the rest of the night.

I decided that, since everyone around me was falling to pieces, I would hold myself together, and hold them together, too. We would all be just fine, I would make sure of it.

I saw another cousin crying on the other side of the room. I walked over to offer my services. The younger crowd welcomed my presence, and when I found an opportunity, I remarked something clever that made them laugh. The lifting of their spirits was all I could ask for. There was so little I could do at the time to make anyone feel any better. I would do what I could and, apparently, I could make them smile.

I guess it would seem I had been coping relatively well at this point, but to tell the truth I wasn’t coping at all. I bottled everything up inside of me and stashed it away as long as I could. That was not very long, at all.

The following morning, we filed into the backs of black cars. We proceeded to drive in a single file line from the funeral home to the church. Once inside, we found our seats among the others and sat closely together, you know, for support.

The church was full, with the exception of a few empty pews between “the family” and “the friends.” This was an unspoken barrier of respect. This was their way of saying, “we all care, but we know this is not our tragedy.” Until I noticed this separation, I believed myself to be on the opposite side.

This was something I was feeling deep inside of me: This was not my tragedy. This was a tragedy that I was simply invested in.

The readers and the speakers got up to read and speak. The eulogy was heart felt; leaving most of us in tears. I was able to restrain myself long enough to seem fully composed, until, of course, her own words filled the church.

Uncle James stood in front of the vast crowd filling the church. He introduced his speech in a most intriguing way. This was not to be a tribute to the late Jamie for whom we all mourned. This was a tribute to her sister, Taylor, written from Jamie’s own perspective.

It was a grateful perspective. Jamie acknowledged her sister’s grave sacrifices over the years. Taylor had been like a live-in maid for the past 3 or 4 years. She never questioned her commands and she never refused. She was compliant and cooperative. Silently, she went about her business, happy to be interrupted for whatever her sister might need.

Jamie praised her little sister. She expressed great amounts of gratitude, but also admiration. To me, it was her final tribute to the girl who had gone on for so long without acknowledgement. Taylor never had to wonder if she was being unappreciated. She never had to question if her actions were all in vain. Her selflessness was what kept Jamie smiling for as long as she did.

And, in the end, its Taylor’s arms who she wanted to be wrapped in during her final breaths. It was her dear sister, the only person on the planet who had never turned her back, who made her feel safe. These words emanated throughout the church, singing songs of praise and acknowledgement to the sweet girl in the front row.

As I processed everything going on around me, I realized something even more profound than Taylor’s selflessness. I realized that I, too, was a sister.

With a great inhale, I sucked up all the Oxygen I could, filling my lungs to their capacity. I let out a silent sob, my face contorted by the heavy veil of sorrow draped atop my shoulders.

I was a sister, to three individual girls. I had three times the chance of losing a sister. I had three times the chance of having to become a servant. I had three times the chance of enduring a fate as harsh as losing your only sister.

I closed my eyes and tried, man did I try, to convince myself that I, too, would have been as selfless and unquestioning as Taylor. I wanted so badly, more than anything in the world, to be able to say yes. Yes, I would be there for any one of my sisters. Yes, I would put everything aside to tend to their needs first. I wish I could sit here and type out a story that ends with me realizing that I was capable of being equally as compassionate. I wish I could tell you that the speech, which was intended to be Jamie’s college admissions essay, set me on a path of selflessness and servitude, that it inspired me to be the change I hoped to see in the world, but I can’t.

What happened next was out of my control. I felt a surge of regret and self-hatred welling in my gut. I let out a series of hysterical sobs, unable to catch any air to hold inside my lungs. I gasped and quivered as the tears poured from my eyes uncontrollably.

The service was over, but I could not stand. My father on my left and my sister, Jacqueline, on my right hoisted me to my feet. I attempted a step forward, to no avail. My knees crumbled below me, as if made of dust. They tugged me forward, guiding me out of the church. My weak legs beneath me, out of service, made attempts at moving, but I soon gave up. Letting them drag my lifeless body, I gave in to the overwhelming sorrow.

This was the moment my family had been waiting for, but the one I had postponed as long as possible. I never wanted to express to the world just how broken this passing had left me. I wanted, instead, to act as if her death had been a positive thing, somehow.

“She’s in a better place” and “She no longer feels any pain” are such clichés. Neither was comforting in the slightest, either. My strategy to avoid crying was to pretend like this all was happening to someone else. It was easy at first, I just distanced  myself from what was going on. I reminded myself that she was not my daughter, not my sister. I urged myself not to feel unwarranted pain. I felt as though it was inappropriate for me to act as hurt as I truly was.

After the services were over, I returned home with my family. I walked into the living room of our home, where we had lived as long as I could remember, and I sat down on the couch.

I didn’t move, I didn’t speak. I sat in silence, barely breathing, for what felt like a few hours. In reality, I sat there for two days before someone expressed their concern. My sister, Michelle, sat next to me and said, “you haven’t eaten in days. What do you say we go get some dinner?”

“You buying?” I countered, somewhat intrigued.

“Of course, can’t count on you to have cash, can I?” she sarcastically replied.

“Alright, let’s go.” I said, standing to put on my shoes.

“You’re going like that?” she asked, referring to my black dress and heels.

“Did you expect me to change for you?” I asked, almost actually joking.

“No, never change. Stay just the way you are… but smile.” She said with a smirk.

“That’s enough, let’s go.” I said, not ready to have a *moment*

We piled into her car and headed down the road. I couldn’t help but feel that as we drove away, I left something behind. Looking back, it was a whole lifestyle I left in the dust that day.

From now on, I would live my life by a whole new set of principles. I would do the one thing I could do. I was going to live my life in honor of the girl to whom I already owed my livelihood. When I felt lost and directionless, as I often did, I would ask myself a simple question, “what would Jamie do?”

This question, as simple as it appears, has given way for some of my greatest accomplishments in life. This question, though seemingly outdated by now, has allowed me to make some of my best decisions. I believe its because Jamie always had her head on her shoulders. She always aimed high and she always worked hard.

Hell, I listened to the girl’s college admissions essay being read aloud in October of our senior year of high school. I hadn’t even taken my SATs yet, nevermind started my admissions essay. To tell the truth, I had no intention of applying to college.

As I thought more and  more about all the stupid things I would do that year that Jamie would never get to do, (graduate high school, go to college, go to prom, have a boyfriend…) I started to rethink my entire life.

I had grand plans to go out with a bang,  because that’s all I ever knew would happen as I got older. The only guarantee had always been that I would die. It was merely a question of how and when. Rather than continuing to fixate on this obsession with dying, losing a friend redirected my thoughts to the future.

Yes, the future, that ambiguous thing we all know about, but none of us are too sure about. I started to think about it a lot, for the first time. I wondered which way Jamie would direct me, here. I guessed that she would scoff at my insecurities. Of course I was smart enough to go to college, I just had to get my shit together and actually try.

Trying was never easy. Trying was, in fact, the hardest thing I had ever done. Trying required getting out of bed in the morning. Trying would cost me all the energy I could muster. All the effort was damning. I was terrified to try because, when I failed, I didn’t want to look back and think, “I’m disappointed in myself.”

In trying to avoid disappointing myself, I was ultimately disappointed. The only way we fail in life is by not trying; these are the kinds of conclusions I would come to by the end of my senior year in college.

Losing Jamie did a lot to alter my reality. It changed everything except for the relationship I had with her. Our friendship remained more intact than anything: my sanity, her physical body, our family. Everything spiraled out of control after she left us, but sometime great did happen.

When I was sitting in that car, feeling the world shifting, I knew that something was changing. I did not know that the changes taking place were inside of me. I didn’t know that my relationship with Jamie would continue to grow inside of me. She would follow me through life, always finding ways to grab my focus; just to be sure I’m still paying attention.

The day she died was October 11, 2008. Since then, very few days have passed where I didn’t, ever so coincidentally, look at the clock at precisely 10:11. The number serves to remind me of the guidance I receive on a daily basis from my sorely missed friend.

 

The most beautiful combination of numbers I have ever laid eyes upon.

 

10:11

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2 thoughts on “The Phone Rang…

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