My best friend and roommate died from brain cancer last month, and I keep expecting her to walk in the front door and wonder why I'm sitting here crying, listening to Adam Levine and eating her almond butter. I've taken to wearing her parrot print dress around the apartment, which I'm starting to see as vaguely cannibalistic. I would say it's making me feel better while I wait for her parents to come from Indiana and collect all of her things, but I also know that my grieving process is kind of all over the place. She really didn't care for Adam Levine, and I think that's what's making me cry.
I'm trying to stay connected to her, and as my friend Fernando so aptly put it, not lose the impact of this loss. Chrissy was 33 years old and I'm 28, and this wasn't supposed to happen to us. Because here's the honest truth -- I never thought she would die.
Chrissy was a human sparkler, a flash of color and light. She could run for miles and miles at the gym before jogging back to our apartment to fix a quinoa salad and the kinds of beans you water in jars. Unfazed by her demanding travel schedule, she would work 20 days in a row, often waking up at 4 a.m. to catch a plane, propelled by her lack of sleep. Her pockets of free time were spent finding me special library books or scouting new photo booths or honing her latest hobby of candy sculpting, building tiny butterscotch towers, a peppermint dome, a crown made out of Peeps. She had enough creativity and energy and love for all of Los Angeles, even if she was quiet and shy and couldn't shake the feeling people never remembered meeting her.
Chrissy had a seizure on Mother's Day two years ago. I was the only one with her when a neurologist told us there was a large amount of inflammation spread out over her brain, most likely a malignant brain tumor. A specialist came in and gently told us how very serious this was while the nurse checked her iPhone. All I could do was hold on to Chrissy, and the more positive cadences in these people's voices. I decided this would just be a terribly unsettling chapter in our lives, but we would make it through. Chrissy was unflappable, and I had been blessed with relentless (if grating) optimism. We would plow on.
It was not an easy plow. There were brain surgeries, chemo and radiation, more chemo and radiation, experimental trials. Chrissy had to stop driving, and I became her chauffeur. While her parents were taking care of their other daughter recovering from her own brain illness, I was the point person on the ground here in LA, responsible for groceries and errands and taking care of Chrissy's trusty dog, George. We'd pick up pills Chrissy had to handle with gloves they were so toxic -- the same pills she would then have to swallow. I waited patiently while she studied the labels of every canned item at Whole Foods before checking out, and set the coffee pot for her every night before bed. I was the visitor coordinator and conduit for update information as friends sent cupcakes and magnets and offers of homecooked dinners while Chrissy recovered from surgeries, buoying us along with their support. Our routines went on as normally as they could.
There were periods of Chrissy's illness where she was fuzzy, forgetful. She felt like her medication was making her anxious, and she was constantly worried something bad would happen to her family. Whereas she'd been unstoppable before, she stopped going for walks alone. She wore a lanyard around her neck with all of her doctors' information, and taped a note on her cell phone with my name and number that said, "Call in case of emergency."
Her personality, her emotional response to certain situations, would be intermittently off kilter. I asked her if she would start cleaning up around the apartment, and she didn't speak to me for days. It was the only disagreement we had in nine years.
She was assigned to a new department at work, and devastated. There was an attempt to evict us from our apartment when a new owner came in, and we scrambled to find another place in the neighborhood that was still walking distance from the hospital. In the end, we only received half the settlement we expected for agreeing to move out. During all of this, Chrissy's brain cancer had gone from stage 1 to stage 4.
I once admitted her to the hospital after she had no idea where she'd been that day. She was laying in a bed in the hallway of the ER, going through the same loop of questions with me she'd been asking for hours. "What month is it?" she'd say. "No, what day is it?" Then she would get to the third question, always with the same inflection. "I forgot your birthday?" she would ask in disbelief. "No, no," I would say. "You were there. Remember? You made all of the decorations."
When she was first diagnosed, I had tried to ask her how she felt. Did she want to go to therapy? A support group? Did she want to throw stuff around our apartment? Would that make her feel better? "I think I just try not to think about it," she said.
Chrissy was very private. I still don't know how she felt about a lot of things, despite our living together for years, and being such close friends for nearly a decade. But I do know that her cancer gave us this new level of closeness, this new kind of intimacy. We had never slept in the same bed, and now I found myself sleeping next to her to watch her breathe, ready to jump in if she woke up with another debilitating headache, or felt a seizure coming on. Our conversation topics started to include constipation tea, her itchy skin, how much hair she was losing. Sometimes I would sit right outside the bathroom door while she took a shower to make sure she didn't lose her balance. During one of our last times together, when she was too weak to get out of bed, she let me rub her neck and give her a pedicure. I had never held her hands before she was in hospice.
My memories of all those doctors' appointments are starting to fade, that rushing to the ER to see her after that very first seizure, waking up at four in the morning to drive with her and her parents to Cedars to check her in for surgeries. I never let her see me cry when I left the pre-op room -- I always managed to turn away just in time.
At her visitation in Indiana, I embraced Chrissy's parents, her sister and brother and her brother's new wife, her godparents and friends and the relatives I've met over the years. Chrissy's dad kindly prodded me to tell everyone about my new book. It was alarming to be sharing such happy news while she lay in her casket 15 feet away; I felt like we weren't including her. Chrissy was such an integral part of my writing and my book and my life. How horrible she was missing out on this moment, and this gathering of so many of her favorite people. But I guess that's the strange thing about funerals -- everyone you love shows up after you die.
My parents had driven up from Tennessee for the service, and we walked over by the casket to look at the beautiful white flowers her doting neurologist had sent. She'd received more flower arrangements than anyone in the history of the funeral home.
I finally looked at Chrissy, taking her in.
That's not her in there, I told myself. That's just her body. She's actually somewhere else.
What I'm left with now is not only all of Chrissy's things for the time being, but this drive to carry on without her. I refuse to acknowledge we lost, that I am defeated. She wouldn't want that. I try to appreciate beautiful days for both of us. I am happy for our friends as they have babies, plan weddings, graduate, move forward. I just bought a bracelet to wear that she would have liked. I keep saying to anyone who will listen, "Chrissy would have loved that."
I've caught myself wondering if this is actually true, if I can accurately gauge what she would and wouldn't have loved. I think I can. No, wait -- I know I can.