What It's Like To Write About Your Best Friend's Death
The first thing I ever wrote about my best friend was her eulogy.
The first thing I ever wrote about my best friend was her eulogy. It had to be beautiful, obviously. I wasn’t just the best friend, I was the writer — beautiful was bare minimum. I wanted more. Demanded better. Imagined myself delivering some soaring evocation that would let us all pretend her back to life.
I admit: It wouldn’t be out of character if I had also, secretly, wanted to impress the crowd. If, sunk in the black depths and the resolution to never care about anything again, I cared about making an impression. Characters need flaws, I’m always reminding my students. Life and literature demand conflicting motives — you want flat clarity of emotion, watch a soap.
But it turns out grief is steamroller flat, monomaniac: I only wanted her back.
Her eulogy would be, should have been, a poetry of resurrection. Except that I hadn’t slept in three days and my brain function approximated a battery-powered doll, battery winding down. Pull the string and watch it cry. It was 3 a.m. Then it was 4. Then it was dawn. And finally, instead of a sorcerous invocation, I cribbed a writing exercise from eighth-grade English, spooled out a list of memories with the blunt inside-jokiness of yearbook ads and bad wedding toasts, as if anyone but me cared to hear about our goldfish poetry or Trivial Pursuit.
At least it fit the sprezzatura of the service, not a funeral technically — that would come later, muggy and formal in Fort Lauderdale, where she’d grown up. She’d started in Florida but ended in New York, with us, college friends still too young to know how to do death, and this was our DIY effort to mark it.
I think it was raining. I know I was wearing borrowed clothes, because I was only in the city for the summer and hadn’t thought to pack for a funeral. Crowded with people who hadn’t seen each other since graduation, the church had the feel of an ersatz reunion, how have you been, where are you working, what the fuck do we do now that we know we can die.
I am the writer, and this is all I write: girls who need each other to survive. Girls who hold on too tight, girls who let go. Lost girls, lonely girls, dead girls. I write fictions of abandonment and blood—everything that feels true, nothing that is. I am the writer, but I never write about this.
The setting: the apartment she shared with her boyfriend, which until that night I’d never been in without her. Somewhere in Greenpoint, where until that night I’d never gone without her. A one-bedroom, railroad style, with furniture that used to be mine, because she was my roommate before she was his, and when I left her for L.A., she took whatever didn’t fit in my trunk.
We were there to make photo albums for the service. It seemed important to get these right, reshape the past for public consumption, and so we winnowed: Yes to the Ultimate Frisbee catch, no to the tequila shots. Yes to the roommates hugging, no to the liplock with the ex.
They winnowed; I cried on the bathroom floor, knees hugged to chest, locked in with her shampoo, her face wash, her moisturizer, hyperventilating her familiar soapy smells. Knowing that when the night ended, I would have to leave and the boyfriend would get to stay, surrounded by her. I was the one who knew the significance behind every object in that apartment, eight years of accumulated story: the Paula Abdul tape, the stuffed turtle, the stolen sweatpants. I would never know as much of anyone as I knew of her, I thought then, and I was right.
This is the story I tell about friendship, in fact and fiction: that I’m fated to be a sidekick. That I chase after wild girls, thrill to their spark, let them boss me around. I don’t write about the girl who was the exception.
She was 26, with Barbie hair and a hatred of Somerset Maugham; she was private, like I was private; she was stubborn but almost only ever spoke up for herself under her breath. She preferred eating off small plates. She believed in a special dessert stomach with infinite capacity for ice cream. I don’t know what good it does to say so.
The easy truths don’t matter enough; the truths that matter matter too much. I can’t write what doesn’t belong to me — what I know about who she fell in love with and when, who she imagined herself to be, what she told her mother when she got sick, what her mother told me, after.
To tell the story of what happened to her as a story of what happened to me, to shrink her into my best friend — deny her name, job, family, past, concrete existence beyond the part of her that became part of me — seems impoverished at best and megalomaniacal at worst.
Writing all of her feels like larceny. Writing nothing feels like erasure.
I can at least tell you about me, before: 26, a year into grad school in L.A., a week out of an irritating on-and-mostly-off romance, dissatisfied with life just enough to whine but not quite enough to act, home in Brooklyn for the summer after a year of pining for pizza and subways and party small talk that didn’t inevitably end with “—and I’m working on a screenplay.” Lucky enough to imagine, secretly and stupidly, that life might actually be fair.
Me, the day after: the walking dead. Sleeping in a friend’s studio apartment, both of us afraid to be alone. Not sleeping. Watching her sleep, begrudging it. Waiting for dawn. Making lists of people to call. Making calls. Saying the words, over and over again, that she was dead. Picking an outfit for her to wear, and debating whether death recused you from needing a bra. Another detail I’ll allow: She hated wearing a bra.
The story of her body won’t give up its secrets.
There are 20,000 new cases of adult acute myeloid leukemia every year, and 10,000 deaths. You have a one-half of one percent chance of getting it, and if you do, and are a healthy woman in your mid-twenties, you have a 40% chance of living five years or more. With chemotherapy, a 66% chance of at least one remission. The odds speed downhill — everything speeds downhill — if you present with pneumonia that you’ve mistaken for the flu. If you’ve been secretly sick for so long you’ve forgotten what it’s like not to be tired; or maybe you’ve just been tired for so long you don’t notice getting sick. Say you work in a hospital, surrounded by infectious disease. You have unexplained bruises and a phantom pain in your leg. Say you’re thin; you nap a lot. But then, you’ve always been thin; napping is your way of life. How could you have known.
It could have been the pneumonia. It could have been a toxic dose of chemo meant to turbo-boost the immune system so it could fight the pneumonia. It could have been a shitty call by a shitty doctor, intubating too soon or too late, the wrong drugs, a missed diagnosis. It could well have been perfectly, medically clear and inscribed in a medical file I’m never going to see.
This matters to me more than it should, probably: that I watched her die, and will never know how it happened.
I thought, while she was dying, This is the worst day of my life. I thought, after she was dead, after there would be no more days with her alive, This is the least worst day I’ll ever have again.
I had left the hospital. I was somewhere on the FDR, crawling toward LaGuardia, where I would collect her mother. I didn’t want to go; going seemed not just impossible but karmically unwise, the way leaving an umbrella home summons rain. But that was superstition, superseded by fact: I was the best friend, and going to the airport was my job.
I thought, This is the last day I’ll ever be someone’s best friend.
The call came as we pulled into the parking lot, and there things get fuzzy: I made it into the airport, and made it out again, and whatever I remember of the in-between doesn’t belong to me.
What I remember is the car ride, the skyline. Sophomore year, I took her to see the World Trade Center. We lay flat at the base and squinted up at steel climbing to sun. Maybe she was thinking about the future and the lives we would have if we made them here. I was thinking about the present, how long it had taken to find her, how little I wanted anything to change. I moved to the city after graduation; she moved in a year later, days before September 11. Another Tuesday. That was the last time we’d been at a hospital together — one after another, crisscrossing the city trying to give blood, failing. I was supposed to be the New Yorker, shoulder toughened by crowd-shoving so lean on me, but that week, watching smoke billow across the river, watching helicopters hover, watching the news on the one channel the city had left, I trailed her from room to room, afraid to be alone. Impossible: imagining a New York without her.
This is the story I told myself, before: that there could be a God, an afterlife, a haunting. That the universe is capacious and infinitely possible. That I was a person who inclined toward faith.
What I understood, after: that I was not.
I was a kid who imagined God as a benevolently stern Jewish Santa and prayed accordingly: for good grades, for a golden retriever, for the signed permission slip I’d forgotten at home to materialize at the bottom of my backpack the fourth time I looked. As I grew up, I believed more nebulously, prayed less reflexively, or at least less like I was filling out a gift registry. When the doctor said it would take a miracle and I sank to the ground and stayed there, where it was solid and safe, I waited — but not for a miracle. It never even occurred to me to pray.
It’s not that she died and in return, in just revenge, I lost my belief in a god. It’s that when she died, I reached for faith and found nothing there.
Picture a windowless, dirty corridor in the bowels of Beth Israel. Or at least it felt dirty, smelled of cleaning fluid, was definitely fluorescent-lit but might or might not have had windows. The part of me tempted to go on a fact-finding mission is overpowered, significantly, by the rest of me, afraid now of hospitals in general and that one in particular. I remember the ICU waiting room was a small space that would have preferred to be a closet; the ICU itself was bounded by a door I picture as sliding glass. We watched it carefully. At unpredictable intervals the doctor appeared to give us more bad news.
The doctor was a man or a woman, but registered on me only as a vessel for depressing TV dialog like the next 24 hours are critical. The us was the boyfriend and a handful of other friends, and I kept wondering, Where are the grown-ups.
The TV doctor told us to talk at her, and I do as I’m told. So, on the other side of the door: She was unconscious, swollen with fluid and scaffolded with wires. Machines pumped and breathed, and I said something, but it felt like the wrong thing. It felt like bullshit. And worse, embarrassing. Even alone in the room with the beeping and wheezing of the machines and the girl in the bed who both was and was not her, it made me cringe to say, out loud, something true. To say, pointlessly, stay.
The stories that come closest to getting this right are terrible: Love Story. Dying Young. Sweet Valley High, the one where Tricia dies. I loved them all. I was a hoarder of imagined misery.
I’m more careful now; I've stockpiled enough pain. Everyone, I think, has their own secret trigger warning, the story that desolates their inner ecosystem. Leukemia is mine.
The thing is, I showed up at the hospital that morning feeling pretty good. Not good like happy, but good like maybe I can do this. I’d made myself a plan. We would still spend our summer together, like we were supposed to: I would sit by her side, get ahead on grad school work, be supportive, be productive. We would wait; she would heal.
She was unconscious behind glass walls. I’m tempted to say now: glass coffin, sleeping beauty, but the day was too bare for imagery. I pulled up a chair, close enough to keep watch, and practiced German conjugations. Ich weiß. Ich wusste. Ich hätte es wissen müssen. I know. I knew. I should have known.
This was my plan: Show up. Distract myself. Endure. The nurse told me nothing had changed overnight, and by all appearances nothing had: She was still unconscious, still had a breathing tube rammed down her throat. Occasionally an alarm would sound, someone in scrubs would rush in, make an adjustment, rush off without explanation. Ich wusste nicht.
I wasn’t family. Neither was her boyfriend, but it was his name on the necessary form, so it was only when he arrived that they invited us into the little room where they tell you things you don’t want to hear. The before-Tuesday version of me, possessive only child who mistook love for a zero-sum game, would have resented the boyfriend for that. The new me only felt stupid for not trying harder to love him, for her, because now he and I were alone together, and strangers.
The new me felt stupid, too, because it seemed that all those hours I’d been busy conjugating, she’d been busy dying. No one thought to tell me that the alarms had signified her organs failing, her vitals decompensating, her systems, one by one, offering themselves up in surrender, and — despite all the hours of ER we’d watched together, the medical lingo I’d absorbed from a lifetime of bad TV — I couldn’t fucking figure it out for myself. Ich wollte nicht wissen.
This is the bedtime story I tell myself: the what if of a parallel universe, where she spends her summer in the hospital, bald and puking, and I hold her hand and pretend not to be afraid. We watch Friends on the shitty hospital TV. I make cheesy cards and mixtapes, laundry lists of all we’ve done together and all we’ll do, and she knows it means I love you and please don’t die, which is easier than my having to say it and her having to answer. She lives.
I don’t like getting older while she stays the same age; I don’t like becoming unrecognizable to her. On her birthdays, I tell myself the story of where she would be at 27, at 30, at 35. She has her Ph.D. by now, I’ve decided, and two blonde kids: a bossy, neat-freak kindergartener and a toddler who likes running naked under the sprinklers. She lives in Philly in a restored row house, spends summers in the Poconos rather than down the shore, because she loves the ocean too much for a Jersey beach. I strive for realism: She’s happy but busy. We’ve drifted apart. I miss her.
They said the intubation was only temporary. They said, Don’t worry.
Everything I knew about cancer treatment, I knew from watching TV, and it all seemed tremendously unpleasant, especially the throwing up. I lived in fear of throwing up. So I thought maybe this was lucky for her, that she’d be unconscious through the worst of it. They’d pump her full of drugs and she could skip the side effects. She could just sleep.
These are the stories I quietly hate: Your friend had cancer, and she was fine. Your father had cancer, and he was fine. Anyone had cancer, and they were fine.
This is the story I told myself, when I listened to her voicemail directing me to the visitors entrance and caught myself wondering whether to save it, just in case I needed to remember the sound of her voice: that she would be fine, because she had to be. I pressed delete.
She had only one request: Bring scissors.
Maybe this is everything you need to know about her: that on day one, all she wanted was a pair of scissors and instructions for how to donate her hair.
I brought gum, the green flavor, her favorite. A copy of The Da Vinci Code, because the situation seemed to call for an airplane read. A bucket of brownie bites and a box of chocolate chip cookies, but nothing organic that might infect. I brought more friends, a trashy magazine, and a bag of chips she was too weak to open. I didn’t bring the scissors. She didn’t ask about them, and I told myself I’d bring them the next day, for when she did. Tomorrow, I thought, she’d be more used to the idea — meaning I’d be more used to the idea — and we would cut off all her Barbie hair before it fell out, and this thing would be inescapably real. Tomorrow, I promised myself, I’ll do better.
This is the story I tell people about why I left grad school after that year: I hated L.A. I wasn’t the Ph.D. type. I missed pizza; I missed home. I skip over the part about how it felt to be 3,000 miles away from everyone who loved her. Or the gut punch of inventing a polite lie every time someone asked what I did on my summer vacation.
Truth: I dropped German, natürlich. I dropped my friends. I built a shrine of memories and lived inside them, which sounds lovely but looked like huddling in the dark of my closet, crying over photo albums, crying over the notes we’d scribbled to each other, crying over the mixes we’d made, crying over postcards she’d sent, crying over the receipt for the parking ticket I’d gotten picking her up at LAX. I lasted the year: taught classes, studied for exams, passed them. I must have done something other than cry, but the crying is what I remember. That, and a loneliness that felt apocalyptic, like I was the last surviving member of my species. Once, years later, I fell in love with a guy who thought misery was necessary for writing, and so for life; he thought happiness was my fatal flaw. You should have known me then, I thought but didn’t say. You would have liked me better.
We’d had plans, but she’d flaked, and now, the phone finally ringing, it was late and I was pissed. Soho had emptied out for the night; Broadway was deserted. The Houston Street Pottery Barn — the one that became a Hollister, bare-chested models out front squirting cologne so that even after I stopped wanting to throw up every time I passed by, I still kind of wanted to throw up — had closed for the night. I stood in its shadow and listened to her voice.
She said she had bad news. She said it like someone had died, so when she clarified that she was in the hospital, I was relieved. We were 26. Lucky. Hospital meant stitches, maybe a cooking burn. Worst case, a bad fall, a broken leg. The first week of freshman year, I answered the wrong phone call and then had to tell my new roommate that her best friend was hit by a bus. She’d broken two legs, but was fine by Christmas.
This was 2004, and, late adopter, I was on my first cell phone. It still seemed like magic that I could stand on an empty street and hear her voice.
Sometimes I wonder how I would have sounded if I’d been the one calling her with news. Not like she did, matter of fact. Fact: She’d gone to the doctor with the flu and been sent to the hospital with leukemia. Fact: They would keep her there for a month. Opinion: I probably would have said what she said about rushing to her side, Don’t bother, I’m fine here alone. I wouldn’t have meant it. I wonder, sometimes, if I should have known not to listen.
Tell us your story: This is what our college wanted me to do that fall, in anticipation of our fifth reunion. I’d successfully avoided years of alumni fundraising calls, but the reunion form was more persistent. It tracked me down; I tore it up. I only had one story: I was the girl whose best friend was dead.
I only had one story and the only person I wanted to tell it to was gone.
I didn’t go to the fifth reunion, but I risked the tenth. I made small talk with people who were never supposed to become strangers, pretended to smile at the things they’d forgotten, our constituent stories faded to anecdote and then amnesia, understood why they could allow themselves the luxury, resented it nonetheless. I took it until I couldn’t take it, and then I ran away. First to cry myself out on an empty hilltop where no one would think to look — then to make a pilgrimage. To the past. To the stories I remembered and the places that could resurrect what I’d forgotten. To the balcony where we’d worn down the night before graduation, her eager to return to hyper-efficient packing, me terrified to let her go. To the basement of the science center where I’d ferried her Twix bars and Chick-fil-As on feverish thesis nights, and to its roof, where we’d pooled candy and counted the stars. To our freshman dorm, where I sat on the stoop feeling conspicuously ancient, watched Frisbee games and sunbathers and tried to conjure up a post-blizzard night, ice forts and dining tray sleds, our ghosts firing snowballs, mine laughing as the boy she was about to love pulled her out of my arms, tackled her into the snow. Then I went to the red brick fortress where we met, not technically for the first time, but for the time that stuck.
If you’re looking backward, a beginning is just another ending. Here is ours: A stuffy classroom in Sever Hall. A professor who would quickly prove himself to be as incomprehensible as he was famous. Two freshmen who lived in the same small dorm, one directly above the other, both quiet, both predisposed to distrust strangers on general principle and so still strangers to each other — but less so than we were to anyone else in the room. The wary look of recognition. The grudging nod of allowance, yes, sit here, why not. The relief, at least for me, in that year of strangers, of being seen, being known. The relief of knowing that as long as we sat there beside each other, I would not be alone.
Robin Wasserman is the author of the novel Girls on Fire. Her work has appeared in Tin House, LitHub, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and the New York Times.
To learn more about Girls on Fire, click here.