I guess I met Stef when I was thirteen or so, which would have made her twelve, but really, I felt like I’d known her forever. She was one of those people that the moment we met, it’s like we bonded instantly on some molecular level; like we were made of the very same stuff at the core. It’s rare that it happens, two people who simply know each other like that, two magnets pulling toward each other, instantly attached, but when it does, you can’t forget it.
And I didn’t.
Everyone loved Stef. She had this shine about her, something rare in a teenager, that made you want to be near her; like if you stood close enough, some of that sparkle, that inherent goodness that radiated from her would rub off on you, and for awhile you would be better for knowing her.
I am better for knowing her.
Stef was one of the first people I knew that loved me for who I was, warts and all, and even now, seventeen years later, I think she may be one of the only people who genuinely will ever love me. Maybe it’s because she understood me in a way that most people don’t. Maybe it’s because she was my first real friend. Maybe it’s because that was her gift; her shine. I don’t know.
She walked tall, confident in her shoes, while the rest of us awkward teenagers struggled to figure out who we were, Stef always knew who she was. I learned that from her.
When my boyfriend slept with my friend, she was the only one who chewed him a new asshole. In a world where I had never had a soul on my side before, Stef was always firmly there, Team Becky all the way. She would have cut a bitch for me, no questions asked, because she was my friend and she loved me. Maybe other people had families that would do that for them, but I never had that. It had always been me against the world. I learned how to be a friend from Stef, too.
She was there when I’d gotten pregnant with my first son, holding my hand when his father, too, cheated on me. Again, she was the only one who stood up for me. I never told her how much that meant to me.
Shortly after my son was born, she got pregnant, too. Excited, we planned for this baby, a boy. When her son was born, the sparkle she’d had went out and was replaced by a sadness I couldn’t touch. Always a party girl, she took it to new levels, trying to drink away her pain.
No one knew what to do.
We tried to reach her, but nothing seemed to get through. She tried rehab, three times. She was hospitalized. Tried medication. In the end, she kept returning to the bottle, drowning her sorrows in a fifth of vodka. The only friends she had left were the late-night sort, the ones who didn’t care about the Stef I loved so dearly, the ones who didn’t know my friend as she had been.
She left me a message at the end of December from a pay phone, having no phone of her own, just out rehab again. Stef sounded good, optimistic, even, offering to get together for some coffee and a playdate with her two boys and mine, sometime in the near future.
That message came too late.
I got that message two days after I buried my first real friend. One of the only people who may ever really love me.
February 10, 2008, I got a call from Stef’s mom, telling me that Stef had died the night before, in her sleep. Liver failure, cirrhosis.
Stef was 26 years old and left behind two young sons.
I’ve never been able to write about her, although I’ve tried hundreds of times. I’ve deleted thousands of words because they were simply not enough. There are no words eloquent enough, true enough, real enough to express the kind of person she was. And getting her wrong is not an option.
I loved her. I love her.
I miss her so much that my heart hurts some days. I’ll probably always feel like there’s a part of myself missing now that she’s gone. That magnet, the part of me that was connected to her, that’s still looking for that other half and it’s gone forever. I’m lucky to have found someone like that in the first place.
Sometimes, in pictures captured when I am truly happy, I can see a certain expression on my own face that is pure Stef, and it makes me smile and laugh a little, because it reminds me of the e.e. cummings poem: i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)
This site is dedicated to you, Steffie. When we meet again, and I know we will, I can’t wait to tell you all the things I never told you when I should have. For knowing you, I am better.
May your shine always be warm, like Stef; like the evening sun.
The day I got the phone call, I felt the wholeness of my little world, my security, bodily health, relationship, and peace of mind break apart, red hot, and scatter in every direction around me. That phone call was an atom bomb. My life blew to pieces and then rained down all about me. Everything burned.
Three words changed my life: “you tested positive.”
The blood ran from my face into my feet as I hung up the phone. Although my eyes were open, in a spell of synesthesia, I saw nothing but the sound of the blood beating at my temples. I was delivered my test results in a department store, without my shoes on, and in jeans that weren’t even my own. My skin grew cold and foreign.
I don’t remember peeling the denim from my legs, pulling my coat around my body, or stumbling into the November air of the parking lot. Minutes tick by and I have no recollection of their existence. In the following weeks, I find that whole chucks of my life go missing. I am thankful for those disappeared hours… the sound of my own keening and wailing, all animal, would have later haunted my dreams.
I sat in the car as the sobs ripped through me and left no part of my body untouched. They pulsed through my fingertips, clung to my ribs, drew my thighs toward my chest. They puffed into little clouds of steam in the cold, dispersed, and were replaced by more tiny clouds. I cried all the way home, bent double, called my lover, begged forgiveness. He talked me down. Said I had nothing to be sorry for. He went on with life as usual and by doing so, pulled me through all of my darkest days.
I owe him everything.
You would think that I’d have more to say about the details of this day, but it’s grown flat. I remember the back drop of grey clouds and little else.
I wavered between periods of eerie silence that sounded almost like peace and inconsolable mourning. One moment I was calm, while in the next I swore I could feel the tiny, organic machines sliding through my blood, dismembering my liver. During those first weeks, I read all I could about viruses in fascinated horror. In this, I found a strange comfort.
I lived through the nightmare of half a dozen doctors visits, a battery of tests, and waiting for more phone calls that once hung up leave me sobbing into my shaking hands. My bilirubin was so high, I was only a hairsbreadth away from jaundice, a second antibody test came back positive.
My heart pounded as I read domestic magazines in waiting rooms. The insides of my elbows turned the color of plums with bruises that bloom in the wake of one blood draw after another. I dropped ten pounds in a few weeks. The nurses looked at me with chiding eyes and said, “you really need to eat, you know. You can’t lose any more weight.”
But food turned to sand in my mouth. I had been hollowed out and couldn’t seem to fill myself again.
During all this, my one respite was sleep… plagued night after night by nightmares all my life, the dreams I had at that point were more beautiful than any I had ever assumed possible. My sleeping mind drew images in the dark that blotted out my suffering: my beloved dead showed up, smiling; an evening was lit up bright as day with my mind’s fireworks; a door set into the floorboards swung open to blue sky.
My dreams provided me with a much needed unremembereing. Waking up was the hard part; the sweet flesh of night gave way to the hard light of morning. Really, the relearning of your life as you wake up is the hardest part of this disease, next to liver failure.
This is not to say that there is no hope.
Treatment is long and brutal, similar in its side effects to chemo, but at a success rate of 50%, worth the hair loss, headaches, nausea, anemia, and sleeplessness for the chance to have my health back and a glass of chilled white zinfandel. I did my research and found I was ready to wander 48 weeks in that desert of treatment at the chance of being delivered from my suffering.
It was then I decided that I wasn’t going to mourn any more, I was only going to fight.
I want to kick the dog. I want to scream at the baby. I want to pull out my hair and punch holes in the walls. I want to ram my car into something, anything. I want to choke the birds who are singing and tell the Universe to fuck off because how dare it be a sunny and beautiful day today. How dare the world keep spinning now that two little boys are to grow up without a mother. I have this untapped chasm of rage that I didn’t know I could possibly feel.