Monday, February 25, 2013

Remembering Jennifer

Last night I tossed and turned. I was gripped by anxiety; it twisted and churned my stomach and pinched throat as I lay wide awake. It is the first anniversary of my cousin Jennifer's death. I knew that today was going to be hard for me, because on the day that would have been her 31st birthday, I grieved the entire day.  While I have gotten to the point now where I can talk about her without tears, these milestones seem to transport me back to the rawest moments of my sadness.

As I lay in bed last night, watching as the minutes approached the time that last year she was determined unable to be revived, the tears rolled down my cheeks.  I remembered the morning my mother called to break the sad news.

Sunday mornings I always wake up early, and that particular morning I was hard at work prepping my batch of chili for my office's annual cook-off competition the next day.  I hadn't heard my phone ring, and when I got a cryptic voice mail from my mom asking me to call her right away, I knew from the sound of her voice that something was terribly wrong.  A wave of panic came over me, hoping that my family members (none of whom are frail, feeble, sick, or dying) would be excluded from whatever tragic news my mom couldn't bring herself to leave in a voice mail.  When she answered the phone, my heart was pounding and I had no time for proper greetings. "What's happened?" I gasped into the phone.  She said she had some terrible news... and the time it took for her to compose the words felt like time had stopped and I was waiting in a vacuum.  It was probably only a couple of seconds, but it felt. like. an. eternity.

When my mom finally choked out, "Jennifer died," it was like a punch to the gut. All of the breath went out of me, and I could barely squeak out, "how?"  The moments following were a blur.  My mother tearfully explained what she knew, and the email she'd received from her brother who had gotten a call around midnight when she passed.  My mom promised to call when she found out more, we said our I-love-yous, and then hung up.

I felt my legs double under me and I crumpled to the floor, leaning against the fridge in the kitchen of my apartment and sobbing my eyes out.  I don't know how long I sat there, but I finally got back to my feet and continued to cook.  My husband came into the kitchen a few minutes later to find me crying over a pan of onions and browned beef. He held me for a while, and then I half-heartedly finished my project and crawled into bed where I remained for several hours.

I thought about all of the times I should have called her for coffee and put it off.  I wished I'd tried harder to be there for her.  Jennifer and I were only six months apart in age, and though we had grown apart in our adulthood, we had been inseparable throughout childhood and our teenage years.  Then at eighteen I graduated high school went away to college in California, and she told me how hard it was to see me moving on with my life while she felt stuck.  She got into worse and worse trouble and started to shelter me from the unsavory parts of her life and the unfortunate experiences she had suffered.  We drifted.  She stopped giving me updates.  We saw each other at family gatherings, but it wasn't the same.  I kept meaning to call her for dinner, but I never did.

When Jennifer overdosed in her apartment last year, it was a shock.  She had worked hard to turn the direction of her life around and had achieved her associates degree earlier that year.  She was goal-oriented and had built a community of friends who loved and supported her.  The hazy details that surround that night are, to me, pointless to rehash.  It does not change the fact that she is gone.  It would not make me feel better to know the minute-to-minute truth of what went down.  And knowing anything more would not change my memory of the wonderful person she was.

I remember hunting for Easter eggs together when we were still in diapers, and when we went and saw The Little Mermaid when it first came out in the theater.  I remember the time made our own En Vogue lip-sync music videos with my uncle Jim's video camera, and the summer we rode our bikes over the entirety of Guemes Island while singing the The Fugees cover of Killing Me Softly at the top of our lungs over and over and over again.  I remember the sleep-overs, high school dances, and talking on the phone about boys.  And when it got tough for her, I was impressed by her extreme resilience against what she faced.  Though she had every right to be bitter about many of the hardships in her life, she wasn't; she was a joy to be around; she radiated; she lived on love.  Nothing tarnished her ability to love others, and that is the memory of her that I will always hold in my heart.