My dad once said, when flicking through the local newspaper, how you find your friends in three sections that reflect your age: when you’re younger it’ll be in the birthday section, when you’re a bit older it’ll be the wedding and baby announcements you browse, but you know you’re OLD when you find your friends starting to crop up (or out, I guess) in the obituaries.
It’s true. I can’t remember having any dead friends when I was little. Plenty of birthdays though. I do vaguely remember this boy who fell into a stream and drowned when we were about ten, but I didn’t know him. Death didn’t seem real, and especially for me who had intact sets of grandparents as well as great grandparents around. (No, my mother wasn’t 13 when she had me – she was 26, in fact – it’s just that it’s a really fabulous gene pool and apart from those few who have perished in accidents, most people live to see the upper 90s or even the other side of the big one-double-oh).
As a young adult through through to an “actual” adult, I found friends my own age amongst the wedding announcements. Mine featured there too, which in all fairness embarrassed me as I hadn’t lived in my home town for ten years at that point and thought my mother was a bit naff for sending in our wedding photo. But hey, she probably wanted to celebrate a day she thought she’d never see, daft mooh. Around this time of babies and marriage vows, death had nudged its way into reality but was still quite far off. An old classmate died from an asthma attack, and we’d lost family of the elder generations including both my grandfathers. All very sad, but still not enough to really scare me in the way that death does when it approaches you close up. Apart from the classmate, death was sort of natural in that it wasn’t a shock that people grew old and passed on.
Now, I find it’s true what my dad said that time, and perhaps it means that I’m getting old (although cellulite and crow’s feet were good indications). I have several dead near and dear ones. Perhaps it’s because a friend left this world only a few months back that it seems particularly raw (her passing messed me up good), but when I think back over the past few years, death has brushed past me at frighteningly close proximity. It’s in the last few years that death has really caused me pain and scared me.
I never name anyone. Not here, nor anywhere else in my writing on- or offline. I assign people nicknames that usually to me describe or sum them up. I can’t come up with anything for this friend now that she is gone. If she were still here, it’d be something to describe her maverick, chaotic, troubled and wounded soul mixed with her wit, warmth and the smile that always reached her eyes. Now that all seems wrong. So. I’ll go with her middle name: Rose. Seems fitting for many reasons.
We were never close as such, but we had a bond, a mutual trust. When I first met her, there was something about her behaviour that made me react and set off warning bells, but I shrugged it off. Always liked her. Rose was sharp, witty, funny and didn’t hold her tongue. I didn’t always agree with her – sometimes I even got angry at the stuff she said – but I couldn’t help liking her for being who she was so unashamedly. It’s only fair to say that she sometimes upset people with her outbursts and how she often seemed to lash out in quite a random fashion, but no one ever disliked her – it was more frustration that she sometimes triggered in people.
I don’t want to go into detail to the extent where people will recognise themselves or others, so the circumstances around Rose I will keep the way I promised her in life: in confidence. All I can say is that although her passing shocked me – actually it knocked me for six – I can’t say I was all that surprised, given what had been going on.
Our mutual friend Garbo texted me that Thursday afternoon. I was working from home and just glanced at my mobile but was in the middle of something so left it. Garbo and I are usually in touch just to say hi or generally say nice things to each other (Garbo is sunshine personified) and therefore I felt it could wait. Finished whatever I was doing, then made some coffee, and as I got back to the computer I grabbed my phone. And there it was:
“Anna, assume you know about Rose passing away, do you know what happened? Call me if you want to talk. x“
At first I just felt like everything stopped. Time, my heart, my breathing – everything came to a halt. No sound, no movement. The kind of feeling you have just before you get knocked out on a general anaesthetic. Blank. Sinking. Numb. Complete silence. Blur.
Then sound came back. First as my own heartbeat in my ears, then the traffic from outside, the pinging alert from a new e-mail in my inbox and the coffee maker making gurgling noises as the last of the water trickled through. I did what I always do these days when I want to work out what’s happened: I checked Facebook, and sure enough, right there it was, her husband’s pained words to announce his “best friend, love and beautiful wife” had died. And with it a recent picture of Rose, with that wide grin that made her eyes glitter that I loved so much, and love still.
It bore a tragic echo of my friend Matt, who died in a freak accident almost three years ago. I’d been getting ready to leave for the airport after visiting family in Sweden – sitting on my mother’s veranda having a coffee and absentmindedly browsing Facebook on my phone only to be met by a string of RIPs. It just didn’t seem real that someone I’d in Matt’s case been in touch with just the day before was suddenly just gone, just like this time when Rose and I had had a long e-mail exchange just days before.
I stared at Rose’s Facebook wall (like Matt’s once had, now filling with RIPs) and tried to make sense of it but couldn’t. Felt nothing apart from emptiness. Called B, who was on his way home. “Rose died,” I told him, almost in an attempt to make myself feel the meaning of the words, but still just that emptiness. Spent the next half an hour reading Rose’s e-mail from just four days before where she assured me that despite two recent scares, she now felt “absolutely fine“.
It was only when B came home that I could finally feel. Perhaps it was because of how he looked at me, how his big, blue, worried eyes fixed on me the moment he came up the stairs and rounded the bannister, dropped his bag on the floor without once letting his gaze off me. I stood up as he walked into the kitchen and only once he enveloped me in his arms and I buried my face in the crook of his neck, did I finally feel the pain. The tears came and we stood like that for a good ten minutes, me sobbing into his collar and him kissing the top of my head.
Rose, you stupid girl. I’m so angry. Months have passed and I am still angry. So sad you’re gone but still so mad at you. Why? How could you be so reckless? But I also know you couldn’t control this. I know that no one can, and those few who somehow fight it off do so struggling throughout, never go a minute without having to check themselves and focus on this never ending battle against something bigger than they are. So in a way, perhaps your life was less painful giving in than endlessly fighting?
“Rose” doesn’t seem so fitting after all. A rose to me – come to think of it – is dainty, fragile, pure. You were none of those things. You were wild, head strong and messed up. And sweetie, I loved you just like that, you’re so much more beautiful to me than any fucking rose I ever saw. I loved you the way you were not despite of any shit that may have at times defined you but because of it, because it made you YOU, even if your demons claimed you because of it. We always laughed all those times on the phone, we even laughed at the bad bits. That’s what I loved the most about you along with your smile – that loud and hearty cackle of a laugh, you crazy woman.
I want to say that I hope you are at peace, but like the rose analogy it seems a little wrong now. I know you’re probably causing mayhem in heaven, all the while laughing loudly, and do you know what? That’s how it should be. The idea of you sitting on a cloud all serene and playing the harp is absurd anyway, and I’ll bet heaven is a much more interesting place now that you are there, little hellraiser.
I love you, you silly, silly girl. You’ll always be in my heart, you trouble maker. I miss your underwater photos on Facebook that you once got so angry about not getting enough “likes” for. This is my favourite.