One Year aka Grief is a Sneaky Bitch
I’d walked into a lot of hospital rooms over the course of our two-decade long friendship, there was little reason to think this time would be much different. It was serious, but it always was. The clock was ticking, but it had been for twenty-six years. This, as it turned out, was my brain lying to protect me. As long as I had distance, I could pretend everything was fine.
I couldn’t get there fast enough but when I did, reality set it with all the subtly of a sucker punch. This was not like every other visit. Everything was not going to be fine. This was going to gut me and all I could think was fuck.
I’ll make this very clear: when I thought about the future, I never considered Abigail wouldn’t be in it.
This was irrational and another instance of my brain lying. Abigail had Cystic Fibrosis. It wasn’t a secret, wasn’t something I didn’t know. It slipped easily between facts like, Abigail has light brown hair and stunning green eyes, Abigail’s entire kitchen is apples, Abigail is sick, Abigail has horses.
The Abigail-Facts I kept on hand matured as we did. Abigail lives in Ravenna, Abigail drives a brown car, Abigail has a chest port, Abigail lives in a refurbished barn and cheats at Spoons (we all cheated at Spoons.)
When I saw her in August, we went out for Thunder Punch and chatted about the same things as always: boys, hair, gossip. We’d both recently been stylist-shamed into promising never to use box dye again. Abigail had moved to Kearney, making the daily drive to Ravenna happily. I joked, not for the first time, that she was turning into my dad who makes that same trek. “I get it though!” she laughed. “I have my coffee and my music and I don’t have to talk to anyone. I can get psyched up for the day.”
I asked how she was, how she really was and she answered, aloof as always (because she was protecting me too), “I’m good.” She went on to explain what was new: gastroparesis, anti-depressants. “Just because I want to punch walls sometimes doesn’t mean I’m depressed.” We talked about our nieces and nephews, her niece had recently learned to use the potty and we clinked glasses over the accomplishment and then wondered how our lives had come to the point where we celebrated potty-use for children who weren’t even ours.
We left before midnight, laughed that we were so old, hugged quick and sprinted off in the sudden downpour. I didn’t know this was the last time we’d sit and joke and reminisce. That’s the shitty thing, you never know.
There are plenty of hospital rooms in our memories together. My first trip out of town, without my parents, was with Abigail and her dad for a check-up in Omaha and when we were older I always brought candy and coloring books.
But there are other memories. Getting pulled over joy-riding on a school permit which resulted, hilariously, in Abigail jumping out of the car to tell the officer, “I missed the stop sign!” (He’d noticed). The Miss Annevar pageant junior year when the promise of “No matter who wins, we’ll all be friends” turned to pouting. Abigail insisted on going to the after-party, MISS ANNEVAR sash worn proudly. A Saturday during State Basketball when the question “What should we do before the game?” ended with us at Ink Machine, getting our first tattoos together. My dad remembers a day spent sledding. My grandma remembers us dressing up in her silk night-gowns and clip-on earrings.
Friendships like ours don’t happen often. The fact that we spent toddlerdom to elementary school attached at the hip is impressive. That a move to another town didn’t stop our friendship is extraordinary. It should be clear now, when my past is so flooded with memories of Abigail, my future was meant to be too.
That wasn’t the case. The hospital room I walked into would be Abigail’s last. We did our best to keep things light while we all crumbled. I will never forget her little niece leaning over to press a goodbye kiss to Abigail’s forehead asking, “When is Aunt Abby going to wake up?” and her mom having to answer, “She isn’t.”
Abigail passed away on December 17, 2014. We held her hands and told her it was okay to go, though none of us were ready to let go of her. We still aren’t. We made it through the day, and then a week. Then a month. And here I am at a year still getting sucker punched by grief when I hear a certain song or see something purple or look at my first tattoo.
A recent one is just for her, two lines of text that wrap around my left forearm, lyrics from Brand New’s “Guernica” My lungs are fresh and yours to keep, kept clean and they will let you breathe. People ask about it, what it says, what it means and I answer, “I lost my best friend Abigail to Cystic Fibrosis.” It feels good to say her name, to tell people she was dealt a shitty hand and fought like hell. That she meant so much to me.
This summer, while watching Inside Out (and pretending not to tear up at a children’s movie because seriously what is up with Pixar and the tear jerkers?) I thought about how great it would be to walk through my long-term storage. In 26 years, I’m sure I’ve forgotten hundreds, thousands of memories with Abigail.
I’ll remember days spent on the farm, in Ravenna, in Omaha and Lincoln. Laughter. Car rides and sleep overs. Park Elementary and Prom, gravel roads and cornfields and boys. A red Suburban, brown cars and black trucks. Fourth of Julys. Annevar and 4-H. I’ll remember that 26 years was never going to be enough but I was there at the start, and there at the end, and our friendship was a miracle.
Check out Ian Pettigrew’s project: Salty Girls
For Abigail, year two
I’ve spent all week thinking about what I want to say this year. Something about loss and love and family and all that good stuff Hugh Grant mentions at the beginning of Love Actually. The problem is…loss is such a fucked up thing to deal with. There’s no right or wrong way to cope, no manual (unfortunately) there’s just a day later and then a week later and, miraculously, a year later and then suddenly, two.
I have twenty-six years of Abigail stories. Some of them I’ll share willingly: days at the farm, nights in college, hospital rooms. Some will end up blended into fiction—anecdotes, quotes, quirks—you can find them already if you know where to look. Some stories I’ll never tell.
But here’s one I will share and it’s important so pay attention:
In November of 2014, Abigail texted me asking if I had Snapchat. I responded I didn’t—memory is such a weird thing because for absolutely no reason I remember that exchange very clearly—I typed out my response and thought to myself, “I should call her.” I didn’t. And I wouldn’t get another chance.
I think about that at least once a week.
I didn’t have anything important to share, not that it mattered. I don’t know if Abigail would have told me how bad things were (I doubt it) but still. I didn’t call.
I hate talking on the phone and I’m even worse at responding to texts and emails. If I don’t answer immediately, it’ll be at least a week…if ever. I’m not the only one. We remind ourselves and it just doesn’t happen and we understand when others do it to us because we’ve all been there. The world, in all its cruelty sometimes, continues spinning and life goes on.
So, here’s the thing: if you’re thinking about calling someone, reaching out, do it.
Call your friends. Your aunts and uncles and cousins. Definitely call your parents. Absolutely call your grandparents. Shit, call your enemies just to confuse them. There will be a last time, a last chance. You’ll look back and think, “Why didn’t I just call?” and you won’t have a good answer. Even if you don’t know what to say, tell them that—“I don’t know why I’m calling”—I guarantee you’ll find something to chat about. Text, if that’s your jam. Swamp their inbox, their snapchat, their Instagram, their Facebook, who cares. Just do it.
I am 400% not the role model for dealing with loss but I’m learning in fits and starts. So take a lesson from me: pick up the phone.