My Dear Friend
It was spring when we met.
I knew who you were, of course. You were the teaching fellow for my political philosophy class, and the most brilliant woman I'd ever seen. Like a great sorceress, you had a way of transforming complex ideas into simple words. Like a great teacher, you asked provocative questions which gave space for many answers. It was a challenging class for a lecture hall of undergrads looking to fulfill a credit, but I saw how deeply you cared, and realized I cared deeply too. More than that, I was good at this class. While a collective sigh of despair went up when exams were handed out, I was having fun. My papers were filled with your exclamation marks and encouragement. Walking down the street that spring afternoon after our final exam, I saw you, and I wanted to tell you all of this.
But I was nervous. What if you didn't know who I was? That's okay, I thought. I'll introduce myself. But what if I shared my excitement - for the class, the ideas, the conversations you moderated - and it fell flat with you? What if I misread you and was about to expose myself as a very uncool political philosophy nerd in public? After a week of cooped up studying in scandalously beautiful May weather, I was walking down the street on my way to a mind-clearing run. Maybe it'd be best to just put my headphones in and keep going.
My fears turned out to be for nothing because you stopped me. You called my name with bright eyes and an even brighter smile. You had been meaning to catch up with me after class one of these days, you said. Was I a political science major? Yes? Good. "Because," you said, with a sudden earnest excitement, "You should be doing this."
It was one of the most validating moments of my life. You knew my name. You were interested in me. For a young person so unsure of herself, still figuring out which way to go, it was a moment out of a movie. When I walk down that street, as I sometimes have occasion to do, I still feel buoyant. I still see you. Even in the dead of winter, I see the waggling cherry blossoms and daffodils and the warm coral light that I wish I could hold your hand and make you see again. The sidewalk there is blessed.
I stayed in Boston that summer and took my math requirements, Stats I and II. I didn't see you. I spent the following fall semester in Washington, D.C. It wasn't until January, when you were handing me my syllabus for another class, that we met again. And again, I was nervous you wouldn't remember me (maybe I dreamt that sidewalk thing?). Maybe things had changed. Maybe it was just a momentary, springtime impulse to talk to me. I decided I'd just take the syllabus and say hello, you know, in a cool, nonchalant way. But again, you surprised me. You were delighted to see me. You knew exactly who I was. You asked why you hadn't seen me recently (stats, D.C., I explained. I was quickly forgiven). You were thrilled I was still pursuing political science.
For that semester, from January to May, I took two of your classes. I visited you in your office weekly, usually a few times a week. Our conversations quickly evolved from the course material to the material of our lives. We talked about your dissertation (The Federalist Papers - I was fascinated), about terrible first dates (historical walking tours), about current events (Russia had invaded Ukraine then, too), and about our favorite niche subject: the American Founding. I felt so lucky to have you as my teacher, my mentor, my friend. A champion in my corner cheering on my every undertaking. Answering every one of my many questions. Generously giving me so much of yourself and your time. But you and time were deceiving me. This time felt so much longer. It was only five months.
I was in Boston again for another summer, this year interning full time. Every day, I would walk from my apartment (by "apartment" I mean "room") next to Fenway Park about 45 minutes to my office, a sleek co-working space on Newbury St. One of several parallel streets that make up Boston's neat Back Bay neighborhood, Newbury St. is arguably the loveliest, definitely the liveliest. It begins at Massachusetts Ave. and ends at the Boston Public Gardens. Block by block, the brownstones, shops, and restaurants become more and more lavish until you hit Tiffany's and Burberry on the corner of the Gardens.
My office was closer to the Gardens end. It was a terrible job. One of my tasks was greeting clients in an offensive blue and white gingham button down. Another was roaming the Back Bay Amtrak platform and starting conversations about our start-up (yes, you guessed it) with that odd breed of businessman (yes, all men) who choose to take the Acela over a Delta flight. But the job paid, and I felt like an adult and that was good enough. The walk to and from work in the early mornings and the late afternoons of that long golden summer was the best part of my day. I would listen to music the whole way there and back. I would walk, watch, listen, and dream.
It was one of these afternoons, in early July, when I saw you again. You were sitting at one of Newbury's many restaurant patios, at a table for two closest to the sidewalk. It was a gorgeous, hazy evening. Tinkling silverware and bits conversation hung in the air. You were sitting with someone, a man, whose back was toward me. You hadn't seen me yet, and I was deciding what to do. If this was a date, I didn't want to interrupt. On the other hand, what a coincidence to see you sitting there! I pulled out one earbud and walked close the patio just in case our eyes met. If they did, I'd be quick: just a wave and a passing, "Hi! How are you?" But as you had before, you seemed to sense I was coming. You looked right up at me and smiled so brightly. You were on your feet immediately, hugging me over the railing, introducing me to one of your oldest friends (phew, not a date), questioning me about what I was doing and upon learning I was coming from work, why I was working so hard, I was only 20! We laughed. We hugged again. You took my face in your hands, looked me in the eyes, and said, "You can do whatever you want to do." I don't remember what I said, but I know I was glowing. We said goodbye, I put my music on, and walked home, due West, directly into the setting sun.
You died a week later.
I was standing in the ankle-deep wet grass looking at the rolling hills in their shimmering glow. It had just rained, and I had just wept through your celebration of life. Little diamonds clung to every surface. Teardrops gathered like garland on the evergreens. Your family held the celebration at a botanical garden in Western Massachusetts. I used the money from my job to rent a car and drive out there from the city. I wore a pink dress. Your mother took my hand and looking nowhere near me told me pink was your favorite color. I had no idea. I squeezed your mother's hand, her nails manicured bubblegum pink. I was a student of yours, someone said. She didn't look at me, but her eyes brightened for a moment, so much like yours. "She loved her students," she said.
A man stood nearby me in the grass. I looked over at him. He seemed about your age, maybe 30. I didn't know who he was, but he must have known you. We shared this same grief, but I didn't speak to him, or he to me. After a while, the sun fell behind the hills and the diamonds turned back to drops of water. The spectacle was over; the spell broken. He and I waded out of the grass and back to our cars. I looked over at him again before I drove away. I saw him sitting in the driver's seat with his arms by his sides, his eyes closed, his shoulders bobbing up and down.
How strange what we remember in these times. Driving away I remember how dark and slick the asphalt was with rain. How bright and pleasantly yellow the divider line was. I downloaded a bunch of songs to listen to before I left - no Spotify Premium or unlimited data for me in those days - but I can't remember if I played them. I think I drove home alone in silence. My head filled with memories of you.
I pulled into the assigned spot in a featureless parking garage downtown. I double checked the car for my things, locked it, and left the keys. I couldn't tell you which garage it was or where. It looked like any other. Like every other, it amplified the empty sound of my footsteps as I walked up and out into the night, cool from the earlier rain, and began my long route home with no chance of running into you.
What does it mean when two ships pass so meaningfully but so briefly? To come together only to be swept away again, forever? It's cruel. Crueler than if we had passed each other unknowingly in the night and never met at all.
I often wonder about who I might've become if our paths were more than just a passing. The years of remembering you already outweigh the years I knew you. It was so short a time, so few memories, compared with the rest of my life. But these handful of memories are precious because what were the chances of running into you that spring afternoon? Or that summer afternoon, just days before you were gone? The unanswerable questions - if you had lived, if we had more time - are just as valid as the counterfactuals - if I left 2 minutes before, if I walked on the other side of the street, if it rained, if my mom called - but these are answerable. If any of these things were true, I may not have met you. I wouldn't have seen you one last time. But I did. But I did.
As the years go on, I've stopped thinking about what you might've given me in the time we didn't get and instead what I might've given you in the time we did have. After you passed, one memory took longer to surface than the others. I don't know why. Maybe because on the surface it seemed unremarkable. It was a quiet winter afternoon in your small office. I remember the radiator took up more space than your desk. It was that semester when we had two classes together and saw each other every week. I was passing the building on my way home and thought I'd stop by and say hello if you were in. You were. I don't remember what we talked about, but we spoke until the periwinkle twilight and the orange glow of the street lamps melted together. I didn't bother taking off my coat or backpack. Whatever you were working on was put to the side. I made you laugh. As I was standing up to go, you looked up at me and said, "I really needed this."
In the moment, I didn't suspect a thing. In retrospect, of all our meetings, I am most grateful for this one. When I saw this memory for what it was - now with the knowledge that you were suffering invisibly, silently - I understood how much remembering you, spending time with you, and making you laugh, meant to you. And I realized you'd been teaching me how to do this caring, courageous outreach all along, from the very first time we met.
I cherish this memory. This memory convinces me that if our brief time together was cruel, it's because it was important. If I was destined to meet you just to make you laugh and forget your troubles one winter afternoon while the twilight gathered around us, then I am fulfilled. I am happy. And wherever you are my dear friend, I hope you are too.
V. Spring Again
It's the spring of 2017 and everyone is asking me, "Have you listened to Hamilton yet?" And no, I haven't, because I simply cannot believe that anyone else could understand Alexander Hamilton or the American Founding like you and I could. And in the form of musical theatre rap? I dismiss it with an intellectually haughty huff.
And then one night not long before my graduation, I'm working on a capstone passion project: finishing your dissertation on The Federalist Papers. Spotify is open. I have some Broadway tunes playing in the background. I think, okay why not? Let's just see what this Hamilton hype is all about.
And over the next 2 hours and 22 minutes, I go through every emotion. I miss you acutely. I laugh with delight at something you would have loved. I pump my fist at The Federalist Papers shoutout. I'm humbled that indeed someone could understand Alexander Hamilton and the American Founding like you and me and with much more ingenuity, inclusivity, and grace. And, as the musical comes to a close and Eliza Hamilton takes center stage to lead the reprise of Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story, I simply fall apart. It seems every word was selected for just for you and me. I cry for everything we shared and everything we won't share - this stunning musical most of all.
It's 2023 and you've been gone for almost 8 years. It's spring in Boston again. I've had more terrible jobs. I've lost more people I loved. The world today is something 2015 you and me couldn't have imagined. Your last words to me, "You can do whatever you want to do", still rattle around in my head, a puzzle, a riddle I can't quite seem to solve. I still can't listen to Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story without crying, but for the most part, like Eliza, I've stopped "wasting time on tears". Because of you, I reach out to my friends and loved ones and say hello. I assume it always makes a difference just in case it does. I try to live up to every promising thing you saw in me. I try to have the courage to do, as you told me, whatever I want to do. Here I am, writing. Here I am, making art. Here I am, taking a chance on me, a chance I know you would've taken. Here I am, telling our story.
"Oh, I can't wait to see you again. It's only a matter of time."
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i cannot express enough how much this story means to me. i went through a nearly identical situation and i have never been able to fully pick apart my emotions about everything, and this resonated with me deeply. thank you from the bottom of my heart. this is beautiful and you deserved the win❤️
Devastatingly beautiful. A very deserving winner.
I don't even know how many times I felt full body goosebumps & misty eyes while reading this. This is such an incredibly beautiful tribute; you honored her immensely with this piece. I'm left most of all with the imprint of the feeling of admiration the two of you had for each other, and it's simply lovely. 100% deserving of 1st place.
Writing with your soul is different from using a pen. This is not just a story, but a valuable lesson to learn from and an experience to grow from. Thank you for sharing this, and my sincere condolences for you
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Your story made me so emotional! Congratulations on your First Place win! I've subscribed!
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This article is really moving
Wow, your article really touched my heart! Your words were filled with such warmth and authenticity, making me feel like I was sitting right there with you, experiencing every emotion you described. The way you captured the essence of friendship and the profound impact it has on our lives is simply beautiful. Your storytelling skills are truly commendable, drawing me in from the very beginning and leaving me wanting more. Thank you for sharing such a heartfelt and uplifting piece. Keep writing and spreading your positivity with the world!
That was wonderful. I am glad you got to share this sad but beautiful story. It was so well written, you had me right from the start. It would seem 8 years was the right amount of time for you to express yourself.
Congratulations for your brilliant success!!
Wow. Not only was your story a river of emotion, sweeping all us readers along with you for the ride, but it contained excellent prose as well. Your storytelling style is very clear and straightforward, which isn't to say that there aren't beautiful descriptors sprinkled in throughout as well! This is an excellent piece, deserving of first place, and is made even more powerful because it is your own life and story that you are giving to us.
I feel so grateful to Vocal for this challenge, because then you wrote this story. A story full of humanity. A story worth sharing. Thank you so much.
The emotion you bring with the detail you share.. it is positively alchemy. Congratulations on this well deserved win. ❤
eloquent and feeling. thank you for sharing this lovely piece!
This is exceptional, Ava. Thank you or sharing this moment and Congratulations on your win!
This is beautifully written! Congratulations on your Top Story and at least one new subscriber.
Your words were pure emotion. You let us readers into a special moment of your life and I thank you for that.