Two friends from high school. I shot their picture outside my parents’ house, six months before my dad moved out. This roll of film was the first I managed to properly load. The day after I printed it, I went to the photo lab during one of my free periods to work in the darkroom. The teacher was showing my photo to another section, which made me proud, until I realized he was using my scratched, damaged exposure as an example of what happens when you don’t care for your negatives.
The blond-haired girl on the left is my friend Jess, who died two Septembers ago. I drove home for the service. It was held in a modern, suburban church that felt as profane as a conference room. A young – too young – preacher with a reedy voice guided us through a string of psalms and hymns that seemed unconnected to her. I’d never known that she was religious.
Jess had cystic fibrosis, and spent most of high school in Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital. We’d visit her on weekends, a bunch of us squeezing into an ancient orange VW Bug for the long drive down. We’d talk and play Connect Four and eat McDonald’s – the hospital’s only restaurant was a McDonald’s. Looking back, what’s strange about our hospital days is how normal they seemed. We were teenagers, we were always hanging out – in diners, on corners, and now, at the hospital.
This isn’t to say that we ever lost sight of her disease; we didn’t. Teenagers have an appetite for tragedy. At our age, we thought it was important to tie people to their problems with appositive phrases (“Jess, my friend with cystic fibrosis…”).
But once we were in the hospital, where the reminders were constant and omnipresent, we somehow forgot. Strange occurrences seemed normal, like the way people disappeared, or how a nurse would occasionally interrupt our conversations to pound Jess’s back while she coughed up the phlegm and fluid in her lungs.
Whatever thoughts Jess had about her mortality, her future, or spending half her life in the hospital, I never knew and didn’t ask about. I don’t remember whether incuriosity or grace held my tongue.
We stayed friends, although the hospital visits became less frequent as high school wore on. Toward the end of senior year, my high school girlfriend drunkenly went down on a quarterback. It seemed like a good time to end things. A few weeks later, I watched a movie with Jess and we hooked up. This would be the first in a pattern of trading good friendships for awkward one-night stands, then scurrying off. Afterwards, Jess and I didn’t talk, mostly because I avoided her. I went away to college and our friendship stayed behind.
I knew I owed her a letter or a phone call, and that I didn’t have long to fix things. People with CF don’t usually live past 30. Instead, I did nothing. I was too ashamed. For her, there were much more important things to worry about. For me, this was the first time that I had broken something I couldn’t fix.
I wanted to feel some part of her at the funeral because I wanted to be forgiven. Instead, I found myself in a room scrubbed of her presence.
At some point near the end of the service, the preacher stopped talking, the hymns ended, and they played a song I’m sure she had requested, “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” an old Judy Garland standard. I’d never heard it before, but it felt right. Jess liked old things – old movies, old songs.
You’ve probably never heard this one. It starts off slow, with Garland singing softly over a rhythm guitar,
Life is just a bowl of cherries
Don’t take it serious
It’s too mysterious
Her voice starts to swell with that 1930s big band sound. Inevitably, horns blare. Her voice rises, and she bellows,
The sweet things in life
to you were just loaned
So how can you lose
what you never owned?
It’s a campy song, full of a kind of sentiment that had no place in 2006. When I heard it, I bawled. I hadn’t seen Jess for two years. I was starting to become a better person than I’d been then. It was too late to earn her forgiveness – she was dead, and the way I had treated her was irrevocable. The part of her I thought I recognized in the song couldn’t offer redemption or forgiveness. But for a moment, my shame receded, and grief took its rightful place.