I took a wrong turn a few hours ago and found out my friend was dead.
I was out running errands with my mom. She turned the car down a random side street near her home and was having a little trouble finding her way back. I knew the area—I used to bike those streets, and my mentor lived there—so I was directing her … and then we noticed a little makeshift memorial on a corner. A woman was just stepping out of a car to lay a bouquet of flowers against a street sign. There was a white cutout of a bicycle leaning against the pole, with flowers and candles around it.
My mom said, “I think this is the corner where that girl died.”
I said, “I guess so. That would explain the ghost bike and the flowers. What girl?”
Mom: “I don’t know. It made the news. She was riding her bike and a truck hit her.”
We rolled closer to the makeshift memorial. The girl’s name was written on the bike, along with her date of death and the words “Watch For Bicyclists”. Her first name was Chelsea.
Me: “I hope it’s not that Chelsea. I know it’s horrible, but I hope it’s not the Chelsea I know. Did the news say whether she had long red hair?”
Mom: “No. They just said she was 20, and not in school.”
Me: “Well, that’s good. Chelsea’s older than that, and she went to college.”
I’ve lived pretty much my entire life under the threat of imminent death. (Short version for those late to the party: I have a medical condition that is either going to kill me so dead one day that I won’t live long enough to hit the floor breathing, or going to let me live a hundred years.) I know that I walk around every day with the Grim Reaper for a shadow. But I forget sometimes—often, really—that everyone else does too. All you normallish people, you die too.
I didn’t know Chelsea well. We were in a study group together; I attended regularly, and she came when her schedule allowed. It’s easy to remember when Chelsea was there and when she wasn’t; she had long curly red hair that trailed behind her wherever she went, like the tail of a comet. I’d see her walking through the neighborhood sometimes, or riding her bike to class, with that hair whipping in the breeze behind her. I still can’t imagine that the truck driver didn’t see her. It seemed to me that everyone, everywhere she went, always saw her. Sometimes they saw nothing else.
The group broke up a few years ago, but I met her by chance in the library on March 17, 2012. I was up to my eyeballs in a manuscript, but I caught a flash of copper in my peripheral vision and looked up. I ran halfway across the reading room to catch her, because Chelsea was worth running after, and we chatted. She talked about graduating from college, about future plans. I don’t remember a lot of it. She had to leave after only a few minutes; her mother was waiting. I only know the date now because I turned around after she said goodbye, saw something striking on the cover of a magazine, and snapped a picture of it with my cellphone. The picture’s still in the phone’s memory, and so I have a picture of a magazine cover instead of a picture of Chelsea.
I avoid discussing religion in this blog; my beliefs are my own, I want readers of all faiths (including None of the Above) to feel welcome here, and I’m not interested in having theological debates with the internet. Chelsea believed in an afterlife, though—not loudly or fervently, but with a bone-deep conviction, quiet and solid as granite. I’m fairly sure she’s there now, in the finest heaven in creation, probably in an endless, fantastical jam session with a thousand brilliant musicians and every eye in the place secretly on her. She was like that when she played on earth; the ultimate transformation would change that but little. But she isn’t playing here, where I can hear her. I won’t hear her again for a good long while … unless, of course, I do.
I am writing a book about death. The Resurrectionist’s Song has a lot of death in it, though it doesn’t always take. I have thought about death from every possible angle, from the point of view of everyone involved. But this is different. This is Chelsea.
That’s how it always is. It’s always different.
Selfishly, stupidly, I want to hear a jazz clarinet.