In fifth grade, our class watched an enchanting little Pennies-for-Patients television special called “Why, Charlie Brown, Why?” The twenty-minute animation featured a young leukemia patient, a classmate of Charlie Brown’s never mentioned before and never to be mentioned again. Despite the happy ending, it was an oddly hollow affair. All of us were too old to ignore the concept of death and too young to feel the threat of mortality.
After the film, the fifth-graders walked in line to the library. “I hope I never have to lose my hair, because my eyebrows are so bushy,” she giggled as we leaned against the wall. I was about to remind her that eyebrows are also hair and would not be any more resistant to chemotherapy than a blade of grass would be to an industrial steamroller.
Rather than play the teacher’s pet, I decided to travel the self-deprecation route. “No, you would look fine. Mine are way worse.” We bickered in the hall for a bit over whose objective prettiness would surmount the hypothetical wrath of autoimmune collapse.
If only we knew foreshadowing when we heard it.
Seven years and one diagnosis later, a day was organized for her. The color for brain cancer is grey, presumably a pun on “grey matter” and metaphor for the bleak outlook on life that comes free with tumor detection. We planned to decorate the school in green, her favorite color, until her brother informed us that her favorite color was actually pink.
The slogan devised for this event was “Think Pink for Ali Mink,” a delightful rhyming cadence that would have sounded fictional if I hadn’t been living through it. Flyers were posted. Bracelets were made. Sweatshirts were sold. A date was set: November 8th.
She died on November 7th.
There are myriad ways I could have found out the bad news. A tearful personal phone call at a timely moment. A handwritten letter from far away. Someone dramatically stopping me moments before I board an airplane that would take them to another destiny. A lachrymose but cinematic kiss in the rain, for good measure.
I refreshed Facebook. The first algorithmically-relevant update I saw was from a classmate, an old Girl Scout friend I think. The message spoke of a brave girl, gone too soon, and concluded by asking Ali to rest in peace.
I refreshed the page again, and a few more messages of a similar nature piled up on top of it.
I refreshed again. There were exponentially more, every time, as friends of friends found out and followed suit. Dendritic branches, six degrees separated, unfurled across the screen. I read every one.
After about fifteen minutes of this multiplicative cycle, my mom knocked on my door, which was odd, because it was open. She entered, glasses removed for enhanced tear-wiping. I felt the conspicuous dryness of my own face.
“Did you hear about Ali?”
I tried to make my voice sound sad. “Yeah.”
“I was just going through photos of her for tomorrow, and I realized what a big part of your life she was, she was there for everything.”
I tried to make my voice sound nostalgic. “Uh-huh.”
“I hope you’re doing okay.”
I tried to make my voice sound like someone else’s. “Yup.”
I was sure numbness was just the local anesthetic before the intravenous sorrow.
I suppose I always assumed she’d come back. There were little pockets of cautious optimism littered so liberally that from far away the future looked flush with the hopeful, but as it drew nearer we saw they were just impressionistic dots imitating solid color. Like the empty desk for Mink in Physics Honors, right in between Mangili and O’Hara, her name on all the official Class of 2013 paperwork, the homecoming queen title she earned by unanimous vote.
No one taught class that day. The November concert was cancelled. In a small school, one death was a one percent mortality rate of the senior class before graduation day. There was a lot of hugging and a lot of crying. I don’t remember much else.
In philosophy club, we had our discussion topic conveniently picked out for us by circumstance. Our advisor asked if we wanted to move the desks into a circle. No one moved. The desks stayed in neat little math-class rows. Everyone briefly shared their grievances, none of which stood out from a standard Hallmark sympathy card.
I saw freshmen who hadn’t known her crying in the halls. I thought, I must be more entitled than them to miss her, I have more of a right, but I wasn’t using it, so I let them have it.
The wake was held three days later, on Veteran’s Day. A day to remember those who have fallen and honor those who are still here. Though, the living ones get more of a benefit out of it than the dead ones.
The ceremony was in the same square as the annual parade. I changed out of the wool marching suspenders and into a pair of too-big stretch pants, artificially hemmed with safety pins, not that the pants knew the difference. I kept the stiff high-school-colored band shirt, as requested by the family, with a little pink A pinned to the front. My own rosier scarlet letter, A for artifice, absence of anguish. Not there as a friend, just another member of the band.
The line to enter the funeral home weaved around the parking lot and wound along the side of the road. We waited with nothing more to do than watch everyone else wait. As we were about to step over the threshold of the funeral home, my mom asked “Are you ready for this?” It never occurred to me that I wasn’t. It never occurred to me that others might be emotionally unprepared to face a vast quantity of flower vases and picture frames and one long, wood box.
I wore my hypocrisy cloak everywhere. I was afraid to take it off. I said prayers I didn’t believe. I expressed emotions I didn’t feel. What other people called “grief” and “loss” and “tragedy,” I only felt guilty about not feeling worse. Preoccupied by my own nothing.
I pocketed my nihilism to write prose and poetry about her, proclaiming that she’ll always be watching over me as an angel and that this good green earth will never forget her beautiful legacy of courage and grace. And that she was “taken too soon,” but by whom or what was left ambiguous, and how long it would have been before “soon” had elapsed a mystery.
“She was such a big part of your life. You must really miss her,” they said. I wasn’t sure, but at least I had a large enough vocabulary to pretend.
Twenty days later, I was in the hospital. The surgical procedure had been scheduled months in advance, unlike Ali’s death, or perhaps much like it.
The anesthesia mask was placed over my nose and mouth my a gloved hand. Immediately my breathing slowed. My limbs fell asleep, and I couldn’t perceive when they went numb. Feeling floating. Above room (above earth pas d’énergie
Suddenly the glove readjusted the mask on my face and a trace of cold, sterilized air percolated under the mask, and ecstatic with illicit ventilation I was back in my body again. Paralyzy puppet arms, lace /up like sneaker by .shoestring IV bow-knot tubes
The mask readjusted and I got another tiny jolt of unadulterated air. My eyes shot open and I was back in my body again before concern dropping eyelids eyelids eyelids. Still blackness zero’ nothing somehow quelque-chose spiraling in befractaled-rotations/ i missed her i did) want to SLEEP.
what-did-she feel when (she) left. this place
Before I could cry, I was unconscious.