Last Saturday I stood in a small garden outside of the church where she was married seven years ago. The sky was a bright blue, the flowers in full bloom, but it was surprisingly cold. I had to keep my sunglasses on the whole time. It's been seven years, but I still can't stop myself from crying.
Melissa and I were born exactly two weeks apart and we met when we were just six months old. We had a close, but complicated, friendship. Growing up side by side, we shared many passions - books, music, the theater. Melissa grew up to be smart, vivacious, and funny. I had countless happy times with her. We spent hours in her basement talking about boys or music. We watched the Little Mermaid so many times we developed a series of strange inside jokes about it and somehow turned it into the funniest movie ever made. But our interests were so intertwined, and the two of us so competitive, our relationship was often full of drama. She had a quick temper. Sweet and cheerful one moment, the wrong word or action could send her into a rage. At times it felt like our relationship was merely a series emotionally draining fights. After a particularly bad falling out after high school, I cut ties with her completely. For four years she continued to call me, never missing a birthday, but I avoided her. It was when we both moved to New York that I finally I saw the value of our life long friendship and reconnected with her. I was immediately thankful that I did. We both had mellowed over the years and had a shared history that I didn't have with anyone else.
When she turned 30, Melissa got engaged to a kind, thoughtful man and they moved back to our hometown. They married on a sunny April afternoon.
That August I went to their new apartment for dinner. She greeted me at the door with a giant hug – holding me for a long time and rocking back and forth. She was glowing, giddy with pure joy, her green eyes wide and bright.
She climbed the stairs to their apartment and I followed behind.
And I thought, My god, her legs are so thin. From her ankles to her hips, they barely widened. I could see the lattice of blue veins right below the surface of her pale skin. I stopped climbing, my mouth gaping open at the sight. When she reached the landing she turned to face me. I caught myself, set my expression back to neutral, and continued behind her.
Sitting at dinner with her husband, I watched her carefully. The two of them radiated excitement and love, pulsing so fiercely with it, it was like looking at the sun. I was single then, and had just moved back to New York after a year away in Spain. It wasn't an easy time to be around a couple so passionately in love, but I was nothing but thrilled for them. She was so happy, so energetic, I convinced myself that she was healthy, just thin.
Two months later, back in New York, I got a phone call from my best friend.
"Did you hear?" she said. "Melissa is in a coma." Her heart had stopped in the middle of the night.
The next day I took the train down to DC and sat next to her hospital bed. Her blonde hair was pulled back, her eyes taped shut, but she was still beautiful. It was not the coma you see in soap operas of a silent, peaceful sleep. It was noisy, physical. She was on a respirator that raised and lowered with a shudder, the air forcefully filling and leaving her lungs. I sat stroking her soft skin and telling her stories about when we were young – how she was the Gretel to my Hansel when we were seven years old, or the long afternoons we spent in her basement listening to the Smiths and dying our hair purple.
Eleven days later, she died.
She donated her liver, kidneys, corneas, and skin. She was 31 years old.
No one talked about it at the time, but she died due to complications from a life long struggle with eating disorders. I was there, the entire time, growing up next to her, and we never discussed it. As much as 70% of people who suffer from anorexia never fully recover. Ten percent die from it. It is a devastating disease and yet there is a stigma that hangs over it. People don't talk about it - it is whispered about, hidden and concealed. There was a time when we couldn't say the words "breast cancer" out loud. I was fortunate to be diagnosed at a time when we can be open and aware of the disease. The people struggling with eating disorders deserve the same.
The essay I wrote for Real Simple speaks of regret, a regret that in time made me a better person. But there are regrets that are more painful– the kind that make you wish you could turn back the clock and set it right, before the chance is lost forever. And so I regret saying nothing when I had that moment on the stairs and I thought she didn't look well. It probably wouldn't have made a difference. But I would do anything for a chance to keep her here with everyone who loved her.
Melissa died right before the facebook era, so there are no online memorials to her, no place where her far-flung friends could gather long after her funeral to express our grief. This will have to serve as my venue for expressing my sadness. We shared a love for pretty boys, champagne, old musicals, elephants, Lake Barcroft, and New York City. I am thankful that I had a friend to share my passions with. When I think of these things now, I miss her. I miss Melissa.