On Oct. 12, 2006, 34 days after the four-wheeler she was riding flipped, rolled on top of her, and trapped her underwater, my best friend Emily died. She was 16. The newspapers in our small town in Indiana reported that her parents had decided to take her off life support, but those of us who were close to her family knew Emily’s lungs were dangerously infected and had already collapsed more than once, and her brain was showing no sign of activity. I was never able to say good-bye.
People aren’t supposed to die in high school, but Emily, especially, wasn’t supposed to die in high school. I first met Emily when we were in the same class in third grade. It was hard not to notice her; she was incredibly popular, even when we were 8 years old. She had bright eyes, freckles, and a Britney Spears watch that always made sounds in class. She had this way of making you feel as if you were important. When she took notice of you, it meant something. But it wasn’t until the summer between sixth and seventh grade that I really got to know Emily. She showed up at my tennis camp and since neither of us really knew anyone else, we stuck together. A week into camp, we had our first sleepover. She pushed me off the bed in the middle of the night, laughing the whole time. I got right back up and shoved her back. After that night, we were inseparable. Her family became my family, and my family became hers. We spent the rest of that summer going on adventures in her backyard or swimming in her creek. We stayed up late watching Malibu’s Most Wanted and painting each other’s nails. We did ab workouts in her basement, then immediately made cookies; Emily always ate half the cookie dough before we even started baking.
It wasn’t long before Emily became the most important person in my life. And when the new school year started, a part of me was afraid that my new friend would disappear. But I was wrong. Emily stuck by my side through all the middle school drama. She let me cry when a boy was mean to me, and was mad when the popular girls made fun of me. She visited me at my locker and sat next to me at lunch. She called me after school and wrote me notes about her latest crush.
Emily always managed to see something in me, something that still to this day I have trouble seeing in myself. She would say to me, “Lara, I wish I was more like you; you have a good heart.” It was like she didn’t realize the impact she had on the world. She had no idea how much her existence mattered. I, on the other hand, thought I was fully aware how much my existence didn’t matter. I felt invisible. But Emily never had trouble seeing me. No matter what else happened, I had Emily, and because of our friendship, life made sense. This was what life was supposed to be about: friends who made you cry with laughter, friends to share every moment with, and friends who offered you unconditional love. Life with Emily as a friend was worth living. And when she died, I didn’t believe that life would ever feel worth it again.
Like many of us do, I had imagined loss. I had imagined what it would be like when I inevitably had to say good-bye to a loved one. But I had never imagined losing her.
When someone close to you dies, everyone seems to understand. They want to hug you. They give you sympathetic looks. They want to bake you cookies and they want to drop in just to say hi. They write you letters, they send you flowers, and they say things to you…always the same things.
“She’s in a better place.” OK, I still miss her though. Like a lot. And just because you believe that she’s in some magical place up in the sky doesn’t change the fact that I fucking miss her.
“It’ll get better with time.” Exactly how much time are we talking? Because right now I’m pretty sure I will never smile again.
“It’s OK to be upset now but eventually you need to move on.” Thanks for the permission.
“You can still speak to her. She will hear.” I mean, I doubt that, because she’s dead.
This lasted for a couple of months and then it slowly stopped. Everyone else had moved on, but I hadn’t. I was still stuck and I saw no way out. In fact, it seemed as if my grief only amplified with time. Every single day became a struggle. I went to sleep thinking of her, dreamed about her, and then woke up only to be reminded that the accident had not been a dream. It had really happened, and she was gone.
The simplest things became too difficult. I stopped watching TV, hanging out with friends, listening to music; I even stopped shaving my legs. None of it mattered, I thought, because we were all going to die. Going to school each day was like a nightmare that I couldn’t wake up from. Every inch of that school reminded me of her in some way. And I couldn’t escape the looks, the ones that screamed, “Good god, I’m glad I’m not you.” Teachers were constantly asking me if I was OK. Coaches gave me special privileges. I could barely look at our mutual friends without losing whatever control I had. I did my best to pretend that nothing had ever happened, and the more I pretended, the worse I became. I wasn’t living; I was merely existing; and I was stuck replaying the last conversation we had over and over in my head.
She had called me the night before the accident. She had seen me driving past her house with my brother. I was sick. “Feel better, Dino, I love you,” she said. She always called me Dino because she thought that my yawns sounded like a dinosaur. I can’t yawn without thinking of that now. I told her I loved her back, but I wish I would’ve said more. There was so much I never got to say.
Emily had been on her way to our mutual friend Chelsea’s house for a sleepover. Had I not been sick, I might have been there too. They woke up the next day and decided to ride four-wheelers. The four-wheeler flipped and rolled into a pond. Emily was trapped underneath. It took four men to get that four-wheeler off of her, and by that time, it was too late. At 11 on the morning of the accident, my phone rang with a number I didn’t recognize. I answered, only to discover that it was a boy in the grade above me. He kept asking me what had happened to Emily. “Is she dead? I heard she was dead.” I told him he was an idiot and was going to hell for joking like that.
I called Emily’s phone less than five minutes after. It connected, and all I heard were screams. My blood went ice cold. It was Chelsea. She was screaming and sobbing so loudly, I could barely understand her. “Lara, you have to get over here. It’s Emily… just get over here, please. Please.” I didn’t have my license, so I ran outside to my mom. She took one look at my face and knew something was wrong. The 10-minute drive to the scene of the accident felt like three hours. I kept trying to wake up from what I was sure had to be a nightmare. When we got there, the scene was horrific. The air felt different somehow, colder, even though it was a warm sunny day. I ran over to Chelsea, only to discover that she was drenched and smelled like pond water. She still hadn’t stopped screaming.
This September marks the eighth year since Emily’s accident. And although the deep pain has altered to certain numbness, some days the grief paralyzes me all over again.
Emily will always be 16, the girl who loved Lebron James and the number 15, who stayed up late watching reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air eating the cookie dough she stole from the fridge. What would she have been like at 23? Would we have both played basketball in college at Taylor University like we’d planned? Would she still be dating Jacob? Would she have the Nissan XTerra like she always wanted? Would I be the maid of honor at her wedding? Would she be the maid of honor at mine?
I don’t cry over her like I used to. I don’t have so much anger. I don’t have so many sleepless nights. But sometimes I’ll find myself in Starbucks and I’ll hear a song that she loved, and I’m once again singing along in the car with her. I’ll be in the mall and see someone with brown hair and freckles, and for a split second, I’ll think it’s her. I’ll watch Scandal, and think about how much she would have loved Olivia Pope and her fierce jackets, and then realize that she’ll never be able to. I’ll visit her family and witness the emptiness she left behind. I’ll see the pictures of the girl all over the house who will forever be 16 as her little brother gets taller every day. I’ll see traces of toys that suggest a family that once had a daughter, and now does not. Then I’ll walk into her old room, now an office, and smell that familiar scent. I’ll look in the drawer and see an old orange toothbrush, and I will recognize the toothbrush as the one given to me to keep there for when I spent the night, almost every weekend, and for that split second, Emily is there again, with me.