Two feet away from each other, and we never spoke. Our eyes and fingers flew across keys and screens, composing and destroying lives within minutes, totally silent. Suddenly, out of the quiet, there’d be a voice:
“Hey, dude, what do you think about this?”
And she would commence reading a section of text, carefully constructed but nowhere near to being released to the rest of the world. I’d listen, give my impressions (which were usually along the lines of ‘Dude, that’s awesome, totally go with it.’), and then the silence would resume.
Hours later, there’d be the regroup, which came down to us being incurably thirsty and ravenous for ice cream, mac ‘n cheese, or some other delicious, deep-fried, totally bad for your body but redeeming for your soul sustenance that only writers and teenage boys know how to turn into a meal. And so went the impromptu trip to the A & P for food and soda that was a dollar or less (sometimes we splurged on Ben and Jerry’s and Snapple). Thus refueled, we returned to our writer-caves, also known as the kitchen table or her bedroom, and ran through what we’d written.
So it was writing with my best friend, Jenn. Even when we weren’t out adventuring on the ‘Trail’ (a section of the Appalachian Trail that ran in the swamp and clung to the sides of the mountains beyond), it was a ducky trip no matter where we went. Whether the A & P, which is a cultural center in our little town of Vernon, or the artiste-Mecca that is Warwick just over the New York border, there was always something going on, something to enjoy together.
But like so many things that are enjoyable in the fact that they are simple and pure, it was terrifically interrupted. In 2009, just after I turned 21 and Jenn was 24, she was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a pediatric cancer that, at the time of its discovery, turned half of the x-ray of her pelvis black with its malignity. Sudden drives to the A & P and Warwick were put on hold as Jenn was admitted to the hospital for the first of what seemed as endless series of chemotherapy treatments. To my everlasting shame, I admit that I didn’t want to visit her in the hospital at first; I was terrified of what I’d find. But my parents, seasoned cancer-friends themselves, expressed the necessity of my presence, and so I tagged along the first time they went down to Morristown.
You always wonder how people can ever be comfortable in hospitals, in beds not their own with wires and drips going to every place on your body that they don’t belong, pumping some manmade chemical into your veins and dowsing you in eternal drowsiness and nausea. Though she wasn’t that bad at first, Jenn sure as hell didn’t look like the fiery best bud I was used to seeing every day when I first walked through that hospital room door.
Me, quiet and careful, “Hey, dude. How you feeling?”
A snort from the bed. “Like shit, how do you think?”
Well, at least she kept her sense of humor. And she would always manage a smile when I walked in.
It became a battle for normalcy. I looked around at all of the equipment and drugs it took to keep my best friend alive, and I was determined to try and bring some sense of what she was, what we were, back to her. It would never be the same, we both knew it, but why add insult to injury? Why not try? Carefully, but try nonetheless.
And one of those bits of normalcy that wasn’t as hard to keep intact was our writing. Sure, it was a matter of timing between medications and chemo treatments, getting to a spot where she had enough energy and mental stamina to focus on decoding that handwriting of hers (sorry, dude: love you to death, but your handwriting could rival Da Vinci’s for its illegibility). To make it easier, I encouraged her to start copying her writing, particularly a novel she’d started about a redwinged blackbird and a time-traveling girl, into her laptop. Using the computer was easier than holding a pen and notebook, especially since writing by hand required her to turn any paper a full 90 degrees to the left. Artists.
For three years it went on, with a trip to Scotland in between. Though starting strong, as the cancer metastasized, even clicking the keys on a laptop was too much for her. The days where we would sit in silence, typing away for hours on end, were replaced with watching episodes of “Supernatural” on her iPad because it was less taxing (and, you know, the Winchesters are great creative fodder….That’s our story and I’m sticking to it). But the notebooks would always be on her desk, and I’d push at her, “Did you get to copy any more of the story? I want to read it again.” She answered with the tired sigh of “No” and I’d scold her and we’d go back to watching the iPad. But it always sat at the back of my mind. To me, her writing, finishing the story (she hadn’t yet), would be some kind of salvation. It would change everything, bring it all back to normal. Get rid of the hospital equipment in her bedroom, where we spent so many days and nights growing up. It would bring her back from the edge.
In November of 2012, the day after Thanksgiving and just about three weeks after her 27th birthday, Jenn passed away. She slipped into a coma the week before, her witty and persistent sarcasm quieted, which silenced more than just one household for a number of days. She died at home, her family surrounding her, and in her ever-artistic writer style, left a letter for us, to be read “after she croaked” (her words, not mine, I swear!). In a blue envelope, written in her Da Vinci hand, she detailed the fates of her many books (if you could ever see her bedroom, it was nearly floor to ceiling with books, and she read them ALL), her car, her funeral and post-funeral (aka party) arrangements, and the destiny of the numerous notebooks and files we’d composed together and apart.
“To Noelle, I leave my manuscripts. She knows what to do with them.”
I was still numb from the news; it was only about an hour after I’d been told. When I heard her decree, I was somewhere between a smile and bawling all over again. I didn’t feel unworthy, unsure of what I should do with them. I knew, even if she wasn’t there to tell me directly.
We always planned on writing a book together, but it was one of those things that you always put off, planning to do it but never making the time. This is our chance. She knows I’ll argue with her in my head, and she sure as hell will argue back. But this is her way of letting me keep her, letting me hear her voice going over the lines again, listening to her unique perspective on characters, on plot, on the world.
Right now, her family is going through the notebooks, getting to see a side of her that she allowed me to glimpse when we spent those hours in silence. I can’t wait for the day I can hear her voice again, and let everyone else hear it, too.
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