Last week one of my good friends died suddenly. At first I was told it was an overdose, which was a shock to me, because she’d seemed fine when I saw her two weeks ago. She’d invited me to her crabfest party coming up, but instead I’ll be going to her funeral.
I’d been looking forward to meeting Michelle’s extended family at the party. I remember thinking how nice it was that I was getting closer to my friends, that I’d get a chance to meet her close-knit extended family. She was one of the few friends I bonded with over the past few years in my new sober life – I’ve made a lot of friends, but only a few that I’ve really connected with. And that has me thinking about my relationships and the ways in which I stay closed off from potential friends.
The last time I spent alone with Michelle was about a month ago to hang out with her while she did my nails because I couldn’t afford to get professional manicures anymore. That’s the kind of friend she was. She brought out her manicure supplies and the infrared light she’d gotten to save money to do her own gel nails, and she gave me a manicure. She’d told me that her 11-year-old daughter really took to me, which surprised me, because I hadn’t picked up on that. I’d stayed the night at her house one night last winter when I got stuck at work in the snow, and together the three of us shoveled snow from around our cars in the parking lot. Afterwards Michelle went inside while I stayed with her daughter outside to build a snowman that turned into a snow mountain. It rips my heart out that Michelle’s daughter has lost her mother. This was her first week of school, sixth grade.
A few months ago I’d gone to Michelle’s birthday party where I was surprised to see that I was her only sober friend there; everyone else was part of her old group of friends who drink normally: high school friends and the parents of her daughter’s friends. Michelle lived in a small community that she never left. That was just her life. It’s strange to me because all I’d ever wanted to do was move away from my hometown, and I had gotten close to only one of my high school friends. I burned bridges. When I left college I didn’t tell anyone I was moving and I never looked back.
I met Michelle over a year ago when she got sober. She had a tattoo on the base of her neck and the inside of her wrists, which seemed to me a bit gangster, slightly scary, and just generally badass to me. And that’s just the way that she was. She had a tough attitude that I found intimidating at first, so I ignored her, thinking I had nothing to offer, nothing in common with her, because I am not that tough, no matter how much I want to be. I can’t remember what made me decide to reach out to her, or if she was the one who’d reached out to me. I wish I could remember. But soon after we started talking, meeting for coffee, meeting at the gym, hanging out at her house. When I thought I was going to have to move into my mom’s house, I cried for hours, and she was there for me. My friends helped me, but not in the way she did. They helped me in the way I’d helped them: they showed up and helped me move for a few hours and then they went home. But she was there for me throughout the entire event, emotionally and physically. She not only helped me move, she rounded up some guys and orchestrated the entire event from start to finish like a drill sergeant. And then she texted and called me later to check on me. She treated me the way a real friend should, the way that I should treat my friends.
She’d almost died over a year ago, which was what brought her to sobriety again. I didn’t think she’d make it at first, having seen so many people relapse repeatedly over the years. But over time I came to believe she’d made it this time, as if sobriety is not a daily reprieve but something one eventually catches, and keeps. I thought that after nearly dying she’d stay sober for good, and maybe she would have had she lived. The thing is, we don’t know yet how she died. I find it hard to believe that she did it on purpose; I feel certain that it was a mistake. I’d be surprised to learn that she’d decided to use again, or that she’d committed suicide. She valued her life, her sobriety, and her family – especially her daughter – too much. Not that those who commit suicide don’t value their families, because depression is an isolating disease that blinds people, and I’ve sunken into those depths before myself. And I could be wrong because we can’t know what’s really going on with those who want to hide, but I believe that Michelle was not in that space at that point in her life.
Two weeks ago I saw her at a sober music festival where she’d volunteered to grill burgers. She’d just gotten a job after not having worked for several years due to what I believe involved tremendous fear and anxiety. For her to have gone back to work must’ve taken so much courage, but she did it. “We need the money,” she’d said. As I was walking away I remember thinking that the next time I saw her, I should ask her how she’s really doing. I didn’t think there wouldn’t be a next time.
All of this makes me think about what’s really important in life. What is really important? This moment is all we have, right now. What will we do with it? Will I love fully, with an open heart? Or will I be in a hurry to do the next thing? Will I embrace change, or will I continue to choose the same patterns out of a sense of comfortable familiarity? Will I do what I’m afraid to do because I know it’s the right thing to do, or will I run and hide in fear?
I feel so distracted right now. Unable to focus or concentrate. I just feel like I’m in a state of shock. I feel afraid that everyone close to me will die, and I’m especially scared that my boyfriend will die, because I love him so dearly. I’m afraid for what it will be like when my sisters and my mom die. How will I be able to handle that? I cannot imagine, and luckily at this moment I don’t have to imagine or live through that.
What I do have to learn to do is cope with the loss of my friend. I’m learning a lot about the ways people react. The first thing I’d heard was that she’d had an overdose, and everyone talked about how we never really know what someone’s going though when they want to hide it. People talked about how good at hiding things alcoholics/addicts can be, how this disease kills. Most people don’t know what to say, so they say nothing. That’s how I used to be. Inside my head I’m screaming: I just told you my friend died. How can anyone think about anything else right now? I especially keep thinking about the way in which I was told, bluntly, by one of our mutual acquaintances, who seemed to have forgotten that she and I were friends. We may not have been best friends, but she was a good friend to me. She seemed to have a lot more friends than I do, so I don’t know where I fell on her list, but she was high on my list. For this mutual acquaintance of ours to tell me so casually and then change the subject really made me angry. I’m even angrier at how I tried to match his behavior and attitude rather than saying, with the strong emotion I felt, How can you walk in here and tell me that and then just change the subject like it’s nothing? I did say, “I’m sorry but I’m having a hard time concentrating right now.” But I’m not sorry for that and shouldn’t have said so, nor will I again if a similar situation comes up again. But the truth is that no one knows what they’ll do when someone close to them dies, and none of us know what to say or how to tell others. There’s no manual on how to deal with it, and our culture doesn’t support grief. I learned to deal with sadness by pretending it’s not there, and that is just bullshit.
The obvious truth that strikes me about her death is that she is not replaceable. Sure, I’ve had other friends and I will make new friends in the future. But I don’t make friends easily, and it takes a long time for me to form a bond with someone. And no one will ever be like Michelle. She truly was a beautiful person, inside and out.
My chosen interpretation of this song is that it’s about having courage and perseverance in the face of hardships; it represents for me what Michelle will always represent: strength, courage, perseverance. I think Michelle would’ve liked this song, in spite of the quote from George Bush (“Regrettably, we now believe that only force will make him leave.”) The quote from George Bernard Shaw via Robert F. Kennedy is one I especially like, and I believe Michelle would’ve liked it, too: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’”
Here’s another video with the same song that I’m sharing because this dancer is amazing, and I know that Michelle would appreciate it. I’m amazed at what he’s done with the mirror, and how he looks into the camera via the mirror. Michelle was an artist; she appreciated beauty and I know she’d like this.
Rest in peace, Michelle. Your memory lives on.