For whatever reason–my introversion, the fact that I lived off-campus–I bonded with very few fellow students in my years at the University of Kentucky. There were perhaps three people who truly meant something to me, enough that I think of those people frequently to this day.
One of those people is my friend Mary, who I met in my Teaching English as a Second Language courses. She was taking them at the graduate level, while I took them as part of my undergraduate linguistics degree (and received a Certificate in Applied Linguistics for TESL upon completion). Mary had children around my own age, but the difference in years and experiences between us never mattered. We were kindred spirits. We were interested in people, in stories, in learning. I remember riding the bus around campus with Mary, talking about anything and everything. I remember visiting her house and trying her homemade sushi rolls.
For class once, students were to prepare lesson plans as if we were teaching non-native speakers of English. I focused my class on advanced learners and made a creative writing lesson. Mary eagerly read her paragraph to the class, about a craft she’d once learned, and while I don’t remember the details, I can still hear her in my head saying “We would poke holes in” whatever substance the craft was made of. “Very sophisticated, Mary,” I remember saying, and thinking later that since I was supposed to be teaching English, I probably should have written the word “sophisticated” on the board.
Mary had curly auburn hair, glasses, pale skin and an easy smile. I can still see her face in my mind. She seemed young. She was an accomplished singer and songwriter. A recent skim through some old blog posts made me remember a party she’d held, how much fun I’d had playing pool at her house and looking at her husband’s LEGO collection. “I bet she’s on Facebook,” I said aloud. And so I searched.
I found many people with her name, but none that quite fit. Many were too young, many had the wrong background. Finally I decided to just google her and see what came of it.
And that’s when I found out that my friend died of breast cancer in 2007.
She died five years after I graduated and we lost touch. Just five years.
Now that I think about it, I’m remembering her saying something about battling breast cancer before. I had recently beaten cancer myself, which is probably why we talked about it at all. She always seemed so strong. Sure, she had stress, and there were things she confided in me that I will keep to myself forever. But I never felt that she was in danger. I never worried.
I never thought to keep track of her after I moved and changed my name for marriage. She probably had no idea how to find me.
I just let her go, as if friendships should be discarded the moment something in life shifts.
I’ve always tended to punish myself in this sort of situation, to feel overwhelming guilt. I do wish I had been a better friend to Mary after college. I wish we had stayed in touch. I wish I had been there for her when she was struggling at the end.
But more than that, more than my petty, destructive need to blame myself: A beautiful lady is gone. A wife, a mother, a writer, a singer; a caring, philosophical, intellectual woman is gone.
My friend is gone.