Loss of a friend can be a life-changing experience
February 4, 2016
On the second to last day of the fall semester, my best friend died.
To say she was beautiful wouldn’t do her justice, as cliche a phrase that is. Her hair was in it’s natural state- curly, short, and dark brown- the last few months I knew her, though she was bleach blonde when I met her, and a sort of chestnut-honey in-between. It was constantly clogging the shower drain of our apartment two houses behind North Hall.
Her irises were an almost indigo blue with a perfect, olive green outline surrounding her pupils. The whites would turn a glassy red when we smoked at parties in high school, feeling like such cool kids together. These same eyes were usually hidden behind thick, rectangular, black and clear Warby-Parker hipster frames. Blind as she was, she’d often go without them, as it softened the world, making it a little easier to take in, she’d say.
Her sense of creativity was certainly what she valued most about herself. She was so much more than an artist, though. She loved cats, tattoos, Bob Dylan, Dr. Who, Minneapolis hip-hop, exploring waterways, Game of Thrones, trying desperately to tan, eating chocolate ice-cream, and sweeping up bread crumbs at the coffeeshop we worked at together.
She was funny in the most outrageous way, more deeply empathetic than I’ve thought possible, tasteful always in her music choices, curious in ways I’ve never imagined, and ever-whimsical in the way she saw the world.
She was certainly one of the best artists I’ve known, though. Her work wasn’t based on photorealism usually, but more so on wherever her thoughts had taken her that day. She focused heavily on symbolic and non-objective drawing in the last few months of her life. I witnessed her working in spurts of energy. She’d often go weeks without touching her portfolio that leaned against her windowsill, and then suddenly I’d hear her turn on some obscure band she liked (before they were cool of course) and break out her pencil box around midnight. My now most prized possession is a still life, white peonies in front of an apple basket, that she gave me for my high school graduation.
She was also deeply conflicted in the last months of her life, as she suffered from schizophrenia. It would have developed eventually, but was prematurely onset after a hapless experience with psychedelics a few summers ago. Though as much as I wish that hadn’t happened, I disagree with how the psychiatric community describes what was her condition, as ‘suffering.’
If you had the good fortune to know her, it was clear she wasn’t suffering from the voices in her head, but rather found inspiration from them regularly. Her ‘condition’ lead her to think in a context so differently than anything I’ve known, read, or heard of. I’ll cherish always memories of talking late into the night with her about theories of chakras, empathic wavelengths, atomic or interstellar messages from the universe, and energies from spirits she truly believed surrounded us. She told me she could physically feel love flowing between my partner and I. She told me my aura was a “mellow, seawater blue.”
The days and weeks following have been bizarre, to say the least. Our group of friends gathered at our tiny apartment that night. We sat around our living room awkwardly before deciding it would be more comforting to discuss at Emma’s (the bar). What else can you do in that situation besides just be somewhere together? Nobody was sure. I met her father for the first time when I helped him choose an outfit for her to be dressed in at the funeral. A week later her room had been cleaned out, but I was shaken when I noticed her toothpaste and makeup were still in our bathroom cupboard.
The death of a roommate guarantees a delay of your plans for at least a few days. I admittedly did not finish as high quality final papers and projects as I could have in hindsight, but at the time I really did not care. I’d also been planning a hiatus to the west, and ended up making little more arrangements than where we’d stay once we got there, though I typically plan details down to what coffee shop I’ll visit on the third morning. Enveloped in grief, I almost abandoned the idea, but after crying over her toothpaste, I realized all I was sure of anymore was that I couldn’t stay another day in that house, for awhile. Thin, fresh mountain air was exactly what my spirit was longing for.
The day after Christmas, rising at 5 a.m. on the dot, my partner and I drove down Main Street, took off up Hwy 35, and merged onto 94 West. If you’ve had the pleasure of road tripping, you know that euphoric energy one usually feels during the first few hours. Endless road with only your favorite music to hear and your loved one’s hand to hold brings about the most pure sense of adventure, as you move further and further from familiarity at 70 miles per hour.
This time it felt different, given the circumstances, but everything did; I still smiled as I sat down in his passenger’s seat nonetheless. With our boots and skis and boards and blankets and trail mix jam packed into his tiny sedan, we headed West on 94. We hit Iowa by noon, Nebraska by three, Wyoming by nine, and spent the night in a quaint little hotel just outside Cheyenne. We were almost taken out by a giant tumbleweed just as we left Nebraska’s border behind.
Our last six hours on Sunday, we drove through some truly desolate towns. If you think River Falls is small, visit Sinclair, Wyoming- it’s the gas station and 11 houses. Identical tiny trucking towns made up the sparse civilization we encountered the last 300 miles, before finally descending into the valley of the Great Salt Lake and its surrounding city.
I’ve been to Utah before, but the mountains of the Wasatch range looked even more beautiful covered in snow. I recognized the red rock I was familiar with peeking through, but I was still breathtaken as we moved closer to the city in search of our airBnB.
The next five days were ceaselessly fun, affording me a much needed head clearing. That first night my ski-bum cousins took us to ‘their bar’ up in the canyon between two Wasatch mountains where they grew up. We were introduced to an overwhelming amount of their ski-bum friends, all who exuded that effortlessly cool vibe all mountain people seem to give off. We danced while one of these lady friends shred it on the guitar in a electric-jazzy style. We took part in the painful (in my opinion) shotski tradition, made friends with a giant taxidermied buffalo, and ended the night sashaying across a bowling alley parking lot back to my Aunt Katie’s house.
Most of our time was spent actually riding the mountains, though, as was the plan. For snow enthusiasts such as we, the “dishes” (conditions) of the mountain’s powdered sugar snow are what truly draws humans to this treacherous topography of the world. Though there’s a certain unspoken tension between some skiers and snowboarders, riders of any breed can agree that Utah has possibly the best of this substance in the world- especially compared to the ice pellets we call snow at ski resorts in the midwest.
Though the snow alone was worth the 1,300 miles, the truly majestic beauty of these mountains and the ecosystems living on them only added to the whimsical ambiance these days had. Brave birds who hadn’t vacationed for the winter chirped in the trees beneath our chair, as we were quietly pulled up over the lip of a mountain, breezing past snow covered Pines. The whole experience actually being within the vastness of a mountain, interacting with it, gives you a far different perception than just looking at it does. It’s hard to forget the serendipity of suddenly looking back near the peak, to see this mountain range sprawl for 20, 30 miles- I wouldn’t want to, either. In fact, it makes me long to go back.
We rang in the new year, hiked around the Salt Lake, played some pool, skied some more, hurt one of our knees, packed up the suitcases and suddenly what I’d so been looking forward to was about over. We hugged it out with the aunts and uncles and cousins and made our way back towards 94 East.
It was strange how quickly life went back to normal, or as normal as it could be. We went back to work, back to ‘our’ bar, back to our own beds, back to dirty dishes, to paying wifi bills and to waiting in line at the co-op for coffee each the morning, because I always screw up the French press. I cleared out all the sugary cereals she had left in our pantry, more room for my breads and bag of falafel mix. I started talking about her in past tense. And, I did a lot of thinking: about my life, her life, our disconnect from nature, change, what it means to be human, and other such things one ponders after losing a loved one.
It sucks, frankly, to realize that you’re never going to see someone again, that there’s really no reason their existence and company and friendship has been taken from you forever. It just happens to people sometimes, every day really. There’s nothing we can do to stop it. Death, as contradictory this sentence sounds, is an inevitable part of life.
I’m far less spiritual than she was. I think a lot of people are deep down. But I don’t think that means a remembrance or grieving less meaningful. I personally doubt she’s in Heaven, one with Brahma, re-incarnated, or whatever- to me, her existence is just over. Certainly too soon, to be sure. I think of her every hour of every day, and it hurts- deeply. This of course will change with time, both how bad it hurts and how often she crosses my mind. It’s not as if you move past such an event, though, you rather learn to live with the reality of it.
It’s strange to think that we’re the same yet so changed every morning when we wake up. Every instance and interaction shapes you- pleasant, unfortunate, miniscule or large. All you can really do is be mindful and decide how you’re going to let each affect you.
Losing Maddie has been beyond the most unpleasant and sorrowful instance of my own ‘existential journey’ so far. It still feels too sour to think of ‘memories’ and ‘the good times’ we had; instead I’ve simply avoided thinking of them altogether, in favor of functioning day to day. Damn the ‘stages of grief or whatever-’ just do what you can to get by.
I know though, that when eventually I again feel so saddened by a loss as when I first learned of hers, I’ll be able to think of her sweetly, and find some comfort. I’ve heard forever that “time heals all wounds” — and I’m learning that now to be true.
Molly Kinney is a journalism student with a political science minor. She enjoys reading, camping, music, art and exploring new cities in her free time. In the future, she would love to travel the world and cover politics for NPR.