Apart but not alone, Annie’s Story
Three years later and I can still see her as clear as day. Long, gangly limbs compliment Sarah’s five-ten frame. Freckles, big, high cheeks, and a crooked nose make up the face that lifts my spirits. Her long, nail-bitten fingers braid my hair to calm me down or sometimes just to pass time. Her bouncy gait is controlled, athletic. Most notable, however, is the heart that these features house. Each beat pumps unassuming kindness throughout her body. A heart that has yet to be hardened by the harshness and negativity of the world and its inhabitants; she rejects no one, providing this positivity to anyone in need.
We immediately became friends, at ease only when the other was beside giggling and making the dullest moments entertaining. I never tired of her sense of humor or laugh, and we quickly became comfortable in silence together, not feeling the need to fill every moment with speech, but instead simply enjoying each other’s company. We never fought and always listened. That was our strength as friends; I recognized when she needed me and in turn she did the same. Sarah’s true requisite for me, however, came when tragedy crushed her new life as a tsunami does to a once tranquil coast. True tragedy excludes no one, ravaging all lives with equal ferocity. It demands the strongest version of each of us and compels us to emotionally react.
The 27th of October was the first time I felt empathy in the fullest sense of the word. When I woke that morning to the sound of rowdy Third Form girls getting ready for class and joined the others in brushing my teeth in a hazy silence, I had no idea of the situation to come. It would test my emotional capacity to feel for another human being, to watch the tears stream down someone’s face and feel the dampness on my own cheeks.
“Oh my God, Sarah, did you hear about that girl Quinn from the grade above you who committed suicide?” said Nena, an outspoken Second Former from the same area of San Francisco as Sarah.
The rosy hue faded from Sarah’s already fair cheeks and she clenched my arm: “No. This can’t be right.” She collapsed onto the cold, packed earth.
The details of how we located Sarah’s parents and gained more information about the death are unclear now, but the pain that wrestled her down to the ground will forever torture my memory.
Quinn was Sarah’s older sister of sorts. She gave Sarah the mentorship and guidance with which eldest children aren’t always provided. They had grown up together. I knew only Quinn’s face. The picture of the two of them was the first one to catch your eye when you entered Sarah’s room. Though it was mixed in with a collection of other photos, the happiness captured in the picture of Quinn and Sarah demanded attention. The stories that Sarah had told me about Quinn’s radiant happiness and bubbly laugh made me want to meet her. Still, she was just another person to me, someone significant to someone I cared about. But to Sarah, Quinn was hope and comfort and support.
Sarah was unresponsive. Her blank face gave no indication of the trail of tears waiting to stream from her eyes. She had told her little sister Grace that she could spend the night in the dorm, and had therefore been suppressing her grief. Sarah had asked her parents for some space. She needed room to think—to breathe. I took her cold hand and guided her outside. Walking always helps; it soon became our ritual. Uncontrollable shrieks and coughs and questions echoed around the Circle as we walked.
“Just keeping walking, Rah. Just keep breathing.”
What she needed was the presence of another human being. Someone to let her know she wasn’t alone and that God hadn’t destroyed everything good in this world. But that’s difficult to accept when the universe has prematurely stolen your role model.
I was thankful that she needed only my physical presence, for in that moment I found myself crying as I rubbed Sarah’s back and held her tight; I was the protector that had arrived too late. The pain she felt shook me to my core. I felt like a skyscraper in an earthquake zone that hadn’t been properly equipped for these conditions. Just as disaster struck, I crumbled, overwrought with emotion. We were far too young for this. My tears took her aback; her blotchy, tear-streaked cheeks pulled at the corners of her mouth and she smiled, but just barely. In retrospect, the tears represented the emotional proximity that we shared and of which we didn’t realize the significance.
When we got back to her room, I left her to go grab a sweatshirt as I felt an unthawing chill throughout my body. As half-walls made hearing the drop of a pin possible from opposite sides of the dorm, the instant I crossed over her threshold I heard her begin to sob again. All day she had told everyone she was okay though that wasn’t the case. I decided that it was best if she had at least a few minutes undisturbed. I, too, needed time to process it, to understand her calamity.
I pressed my hand against my mouth, silencing the sound of my own gasps and felt for the wall behind me. My body collapsed in the presence of something strong, something solid supporting the weight of my body and emotions. Each of Sarah’s cries panged my heart. My muscles tensed every time Sarah uttered her name. Quinn. I grabbed for my knees. Quinn. I muffled my sobs. Quinn. I pressed my back harder against the wall, demanding my body to respond. The agony she felt was unbearable. Never before had I, and haven’t since, been so anguished by someone else’s feelings. Sarah’s affliction was my affliction. We had achieved inexplicable emotional unity—empathy.
I’m not sure if it was that night or the nights that followed that bonded the two of us eternally. From there on, on the eve of the 27th of each month, the anniversary of Quinn’s death, I’d sneak across the hall to her bed after lights out. Our laughs would escape from under her comforter, much to the annoyance of her roommate. But we didn’t care. During those nights she knew she wasn’t alone, and she knew that Quinn’s story wasn’t just another heartbreaking headline. Quinn’s story mattered to her and so it mattered to me.
“Tell me about her,” I said one night after our energy had subdued a bit. I wanted to help Sarah remember Quinn for the ways she had touched her life, not for the tragedy of her death. I gave her hand an encouraging squeeze.
“She was selfless. We used to play on the same club lacrosse team together. I was in 7th grade and she was in 8th grade. But we were friends because we carpooled. That was my favorite part—the carpooling, the time we spent together on our way to and from. She was so nice to me. She made sure no one on the team was mean to me. It was mostly an 8th grade team (I’m old for my grade). She told everyone that because I was her friend no one could pick on me even though I was younger. She took me under her wing. But it wasn’t just me; she wanted to make everyone feel comfortable, even giggly, knobby-kneed 7th graders like me. Quinn always looked after everyone.”
And that’s when I feel the healing began for her. At first, tears would accompany each story, but as we exchanged more stories, laughs and smiles interposed the memories. In telling me her memories, Sarah learned that she could be happy when she thought about Quinn even though she still missed her.
At the time, I don’t think I realized Sarah’s dependence on me. I became ingrained in her grief, a part of the healing process. After she heard the news about Quinn and after the initial conversations with her parents, Sarah didn’t call home until two days before Thanksgiving break. For nearly a month, we were the ones who dealt with her sorrow. For better or worse, we handled it—or so I thought.
She didn’t tell until after, until she had some space from the issue. Sarah had taken to self-harm following Quinn’s death. She was truly broken and couldn’t see that cutting the cracks deeper wasn’t the solution. She worked with a professional and wrapped herself tighter in the comfort of our friendship. And little by little, she got better.
Sarah was resilient. But when I received a phone call from her the summer after Third Form, I had to face that resilience also takes form in acceptance. I was laying on my front yard when my phone rang:
“Rah! To what do I owe this pleasure?” I practically squealed. Although we had been constantly texting since our departure a month prior, the sound of her voice was revitalizing.
“Hey, bud. You’re right; it has been a while since we’ve talked on the phone.” Hearing her voice made me smile; it has always put me at ease.
She continued, “Okay, so I’ll just go for it. Obviously you’re the first person I wanted to tell, but I won’t be coming back to Groton in the Fall. My parents and I have talked about it a lot (too much) and they just think being close to home is better. And I agree with them. Last year was just—,” she paused, and I swallowed, “hard.”
I couldn’t, and knew I shouldn’t, say anything to try and change her mind, so instead I told her that I didn’t know what Groton would mean to me without her. And I told her the truth; I understood that she needed to stay at home. Quinn’s suicide had ripped the roots Sarah was beginning to plant at Groton and the academic rigor that Groton called for was made unmanageable by her constant emotional turmoil. So when I received that phone call from her, I understood that her withdrawal from Groton was for the best.
Sarah made this place a home for me and taught me the true impact thoughtfulness can have on someone. The other day I found the birthday card she made me in Third Form, just barely a month after Quinn’s death. In it she wrote, “Not having people around that knew Quinn makes it harder sometimes, but I just wanted to thank you for talking to me about her and listening to my stories about her.” She let the people she cared about know that they were loved.
It’s been years since I’ve seen her face outside the boundaries of a computer screen, but that hardly matters. I consider Sarah one of my closest friends, and while we don’t talk every day, when we do it continues seamlessly from where we last left off. She didn’t disappear from my life when she left Groton. Thanks to the distance, conflict among friends, academic pressure, and too much time spent together are factors that haven’t plagued my relationship with Sarah. I get to talk to her about all of those stresses and hear her removed opinion that is strengthened by her knowledge and understanding of Groton. The precedence of our relationship has outrivaled any and all other factors. Three years and 3,000 miles have separated us but have yet to sever our relationships, for emotional connection will always transcend time and distance.
“I committed to Oberlin for basketball!” Sarah said in one breath when I picked up her phone call last month.
“What? That’s incredible. Congratulations!”
She says nothing and I can tell it’s because she’s smiling. And so I continue:
“You know, I was recruited by Oberlin but told them I wasn’t interested. We could’ve gone to college together.”
“Why would you tell me that? I wish we could go to school together. Are you looking at anywhere near Oberlin?” she said in an all too hopeful voice.
“No, I think Virginia. It’s a long ways away from Ohio.” I responded, deflated.
“Hey, Ohio is a helluva a lot closer than California.”
Written by Annie McElgunn