On the death of a friend, one year later

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Postcard from Cat when she was in Rome.

Today is the one-year anniversary of the death of a dear friend of mine. We met as freshman in college and “clicked,” as Cat did with most people. We even lived together for a quarter during our senior year, at a time in my life when I really needed someone to force me to skip to the grocery store and she probably needed someone to remind her that humans need sleep, even if it was on-campus recruitment season for consulting jobs.

She was beautiful (but also somewhere between humble and oblivious), really smart, so vibrant, hilariously funny, undeniably quirky, driven, caring… She was studying Econ because she was going to make sure that her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. to give their children a better life, were taken care of in their old age. That way, her quieter, artsy little sister would be free to follow her passions. That was Cat’s purpose in life, which only made the broken promise of her bright future sting that much more.

She’s not supposed to be gone. I couldn’t make sense of it a year ago and I can’t make sense of it now. She wasn’t bravely battling a terminal disease. She wasn’t living in torment, looking for a way to end it. She’s wasn’t a daredevil jumping headfirst into water she hoped was deep enough. She wasn’t the hard-partying girl you’re sad but unsurprised to learn crashed her car while driving drunk. Hell, the guy who hit her wasn’t even drunk. She was just walking across a familiar street on her way to work, not even on her phone. The media called it a “freak accident.” If she had been 30 seconds later that morning, we would talk soon about how weird post-college life is, each thinking the other has it better figured out. If she had been 30 seconds earlier, I would be teasing her about how, despite her best efforts, she didn’t really want to marry a funny Asian doctor and she should just accept that.

I’ve often felt that my heart is permanently in pieces because the people I love are so spread out around the country and sometimes even the world. Now, a piece of my heart—the one that belonged with Cat—is broken. There is no postcard or Skype or GChat or SMS that can fix it. I’m not saying that I’m the one hurting the most by any means. I cannot even fathom what her family continues to feel about this loss. I don’t think I’ve had the chance to meet her mother, but she occasionally posts stories to Cat’s Facebook wall that, even in her still-improving English, are some of the most moving tales I’ve ever read. There was one about a long, crowded train ride in China when Cat was a baby. There was no room on the train to change a baby, let alone for them to sit down, so her mom held her the whole time, hoping Cat wouldn’t need changing or get upset. She writes that they got to the other end with dry diapers and no tears. Her mom’s arms were numb from holding Cat, but her precious baby made her feel like a superhero that day. Superheroes aren’t supposed to die.

I keep trying to make her death mean something—to me, to the world, at all… Like maybe if we could make sure her parents were taken care of, it wouldn’t hurt as much. (We did raise over $22,000, but it still hurt like crazy.) Or if everyone missing her now cherishes our friends and family because we’ve learned that there isn’t necessarily more time, maybe that would make it a little bit more okay. Or if I do a good job working at a nonprofit that aims to give kids a better chance, like her parents wanted for her. Or if the City changed that goddamn intersection. But the reality is, even if any or all of those efforts succeeded, her death would still be senseless. And most of those efforts can’t succeed. At least not for long. For most of us, this is a career-focused time in our lives. We don’t suddenly keep in touch way better for the same reason that Cat and I hadn’t seen each other in a few months when she died—life keeps happening, whether you approve of its pace or not. It adds insult to devastating injury. It makes every monotonous task and every minute spent away from the people we love seem so stupid, and yet so inevitable.

In the past year, everything has changed but nothing has changed. I am still angry at Chicago and that driver and the universe for taking Cat away and I think I might always be. I still don’t know what I’m doing with my life. I miss my friends, especially today. I want to grab coffee with Cat and tell her that she has this whole “real life” thing figured out way better than I do and, paradoxically, that she works too hard and I want to see her more often. The same goes for other friends for whom at least the coffee part is possible. Instead, I’m alone writing this rather than working because I can’t focus today, but the rest of the world kept turning; I’ve got “If I Die Young” on repeat, even though it’s not the sort of thing I would normally listen to, because it seems so appropriate. Really, today is a good illustration of the only thing I’m sure of, a year later: The death of a young person with such purpose and potential—of a “superhero”—is utterly absurd.

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