I graduated from college in December 2001. No one was hiring in the aftermath of the 9/11 tragedy and therefore I moved back in with my parents as I had nowhere else to go. It’s a strange thing to live independently for four years and suddenly be thrust back into living like you did when you were a teenager. But I was thankful for gracious parents who understood there was no way for me to pay rent if I didn’t have a job.
When my college days ended, I was three months into a new and exciting relationship. A beautiful boy with a beautiful name, Naaman. I was fairly certain he was “the one” but wouldn’t let myself believe I had finally found a good guy. Someone I could spend my life with. Someone who would love me and accept me, despite my issues with depression. The declarations of love had come only a few weeks after graduating. We had set off on a road trip to New Orleans where in a romantic hotel in the French Quarter he proclaimed those three amazing words. I love you. It surprised me and yet I knew he spoke the truth even though the love we both felt was still in its infancy.
As I was without a job and both my parents were working, I tried to do a few things to help around the house. One day my mom sent me with a list to the grocery store. I was walking up the stairs with one too many sacks as one gave out. I started picking up the items that spilled out when I heard the phone ring. I rushed to answer it and was frozen when I heard the voice on the other end of the line. It was my friend Breanna. My heart dropped as I knew what she was calling to say.
“It’s Amy. She’s in the hospital and it’s bad. They don’t think she’ll make it through the night.”
I didn’t understand the words that were being uttered. I had heard from mutual friends that Amy had a stem cell transplant and her recovery was slow but going well. And now, I was shaking holding the phone. Listening to my friend tell me that Amy was dying.
It had been over a year since I learned that Amy had leukemia. There were plenty of times I could have gone to visit her. But a summer journalism internship in London and a busy last semester kept me away. Who am I kidding? My shame wouldn’t allow me to go see her. I felt I had no right to stand there in front of her, begging for forgiveness.
I had heard that she would have liked to see me. And during a break at school, I even made plans to go see her with a friend. But then they called and told me that she was feeling sick and couldn’t see anyone. I stubbornly assumed that she was making up an excuse because she did not want to see me. I never tried again.
“Molly,” Breanna said as my mind snapped back to reality, “If you want to see her you better come now.”
I didn’t hesitate. “I’ll be there soon.” I said, hanging up the phone.
I stood there for a minute, shaking uncontrollably. I thought to myself, what do I do first. I couldn’t remember how to move my feet in front of me. What do you do when someone tells you that your friend will be dead soon?
I looked down, willing my feet to move. I saw in my hand a package of mandarin oranges and I wanted to go back to that moment. The moment before when I was cursing the grocery bag for breaking under the weight of too many cans. The moment of picking up the random groceries that had spilled out all over the staircase. The moment that the grocery bag broke and I perceived that as a bad day. Take me back to that moment. Without confusion. Without tears. Without questions.
I still cannot see or eat mandarin oranges without thinking of that fateful phone call.
I called my mom and told her that Amy was dying. I didn’t think I could drive myself to the hospital. She came home immediately to go with me. Years earlier, my mom had been like a second mom to Amy. My sister Cindi had also been good friends with her so I called her too. She was still at college but said she would be on her way soon. We all came together to face what was important, instantly forgetting what we were mad about. It didn’t matter anymore.
I will never forget the parking lot. The elevator ride. Walking up to the ICU. Entering the waiting room. I didn’t know what to expect. I was only 23-years-old. You’re not supposed to know how to say goodbye to a friend forever at that young age. I had never done this before. I also still felt terribly guilty for not coming to see her before now. I didn’t know if my being there might upset the family. But if this was truly my last chance to see Amy, I had to let that go.
A gush of cold wind flushed over my perspirating body as we opened the waiting room door. I paused for reaction. And then something so unexpected happened. Amy’s mom looked up at me and smiled. She smiled at me. I was in disbelief that she could smile at anything. But in that moment I knew I had made the right decision to come to the hospital. I knew that all was forgiven.
All of my pride and guilt and stubborness fell way. All of the separation that years of hurt feelings had put between friends closed in around us. All of the barriers I had placed around my heart came crumbling down. I ran to her mother, put both my arms around her and pulled her in tight. If Amy’s mother could forgive me for not coming to visit her daughter during her battle with cancer, then I had to forgive myself.
The next few hours were spent waiting and talking and being silent and talking and waiting. None of us knew how long it would take. Her kidneys were shutting down and she was kept alive only by a machine at this point. I had asked if I would get the chance to see her but Breanna had told me she had already fallen into a coma. I had missed my chance to talk to her.
But after a few hours passed, someone asked if my mom and I would like to go back and see her. I was warned that she didn’t look like herself. But I don’t think I was prepared for what I was about to see. As I rounded the corner, the first thing I noticed was her lack of hair. I always remembered her with thick beautiful hair. It was all gone now. Her body swollen from steroids and her eyes closed shut. I watched her torso rise up and down, up and down, up and down. Her body worked so hard just to take one breath. It was clear to me that the friend I had known and loved was ready to leave this world. I could tell she was tired. I could tell she wanted to be done. She was 22-years-old. But she was done.
I approached her and stood silently by her side. I didn’t know what to do or what to say. My mom stood on the other side and was instantly crying. Tears were falling from my eyes as well. I wrestled in my head with what was appropriate. Her parents and brother sat on the other side of the curtain and I didn’t feel like me falling apart was the correct thing to do. I just didn’t feel like it was my right to say anything.
But inside? Inside I was screaming . . .
I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. I can’t believe I left you alone. Wake up. Please just wake up, Amy. Open your eyes. I need you to hear me. I need you to know how much I miss you. You cannot die. Please, we need more time. You’re too young to die. You’re too beautiful. I messed up. I messed up. I was wrong. It was my fault. I know that now. I need you to wake up so you will know. I’m sorry I didn’t come until now. I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.
As I said these words inside my head, I brought my hand closer and closer to hers. I wanted so badly to touch her. I wanted to hold her hand. It remains one of my biggest regrets that I did not touch her. My finger was within inches of her arm. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I don’t know why I was so scared. She was still a person. She was still breathing. But I never did.
I should have squeezed her hand. I should have kissed her forehead. I should have said, “I love you. No one will ever make me laugh as hard as you did. I will miss you so much.”
Instead, I turned around and left.
Later that night, we were all invited to go back into her room. Thirty or so of her family and friends all piled into the hospital room and surrounded her bedside. We stood right outside the door as there were so many there to witness her spirit take its leave. Her minister prayed as they turned off the machine. He told her that it was okay to go home to Jesus. That we would all be okay here. It was okay to let go. The only sounds heard were the minister’s soft voice deep in prayer and the beeping of machines.
It took her heart awhile to finish her goodbyes. I was not surprised by that. She was always so determined in everything she did. I was right in front of the heart monitor outside her room. I’ve never seen anything like it. I never realized how hard the heart keeps working to stay alive. Even when there is no hope left. Even when cancer had stolen her beauty and her life. It could never steal her heart. Every time I would think her heart had stopped one last beat would flash green across the screen. Until finally, the green line stayed straight. No inclines on the monitor. Just a narrow line. The straightest line I’ve ever seen. At that exact moment inside the room, I heard her mother and father let out sounds I didn’t know existed. The pain in those cries. It cut right through every one of us. One might expect chaos, but even through the wails, there was peace. A peace I had never known. Amy was gone and even though it felt so very wrong to me. It was right for her.
That night, as I arrived home late, my new love sat on the couch with my dad. He held one red rose in his hand. He didn’t know who Amy was. I hadn’t gotten to the point in our relationship where I had explained that part of my life to him. I wasn’t ready yet. But I’m sure my dad had filled him in. How at one time, Amy was one of the most important people in my life. Her sense of humor had kept me out of the depths of hell and had saved me from hurting myself on more than one occasion. There was no doubt in my mind, she had saved my life when my depression tried to take it.
When I saw Naaman sitting there, holding a rose, I knew then that he was the one for me. He didn’t understand the extent of my sadness but it was the gesture that counted. I needed him to be there in that moment. He was. The knight that I never believed in. He was standing right in front of me on the worst night of my life. He hugged me. Wiped my tears. And he didn’t care that I was an emotional disaster. He loved me. To finally know and realize true love on this night. I suddenly knew why God had waited until this moment to show it to me.
Amy’s funeral was on a viciously cold day in January. There were more than 300 people there. I looked around at familiar faces from my past. She had touched so many people’s lives. And I felt honored to be among those who had been a part of hers, even if for a short while.
Just as her graveside ceremony was ending, it started pouring freezing rain on everyone. It was so cold it hurt to breathe the air into my lungs. I ran to the car and waited for my parents as they said there goodbyes.
The rain did not stop that night and did a good job of turning our earth to a frozen wonderland by the next morning. It turned out to be one of the worst ice storms our area had seen in a long time. Thousands were without power as tree limbs downed power lines. At one point in the night I went outside with the dogs. The only sound I could hear was the sound of the tree branches breaking with the weight of the ice.
It was dark and eery and perfect all at the same time. Perfect because the warmth had gone from me days earlier as I watched my dear friend’s heart stop beating. The earth froze on the day my friend was buried. Within hours everything was covered in ice. It would take weeks for our town to recover. But it would take much longer for me to thaw the ice that formed inside me the day I said goodbye.
Stay tuned for Part V, the finale . . .