Monday, June 24, 2013

Chelsea


Written on the evening of June 22, 2013. I typed until my eyes wouldn’t stop leaking.

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 went home, reasonably sure I hadn’t just passed a memorial to a friend. But now, as I Google the name on the bike and the limited number of accidents involving bikes and trucks in that town, it looks like my mom was wrong about her age and I was wrong about her still being alive. It was that Chelsea. My Chelsea, although she was never anybody’s but her own.

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.

Chelsea was studious and serious, with a streak of wicked wit that showed itself in bright flashes. She was slow to talk about her personal life, from what I remember, but when she did speak, she always had something worthwhile to say. She was several years younger than I, and I kept forgetting it because she was so solemn, and so wise. She was a fantastically talented musician; she played jazz clarinet in local combos under the terribly appropriate name Chelsea Joy. Even in college, she was a regular performer in demand at the town’s one and only good jazz club, which was why she couldn’t always make the meetings. I imagine she said things through that clarinet that she didn’t feel like saying in words. I regret that I don’t understand music well enough to have heard them.

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 don’t yet know how I’m supposed to feel about this. Obviously I wasn’t in Chelsea’s immediate social circle; I hadn’t even seen her in over a year, and didn’t find out about her death until two days after it happened. But I feel like the world is missing a piece I didn’t even know was there. A few notes have fallen out of the symphony when nobody was looking, and now it just sounds … wrong.

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.


6 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Bikes painted white as roadside memorials to bike accidents. The ghost bike for Chelsea is visible in one of the photos above.

      For more information:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_bike
      http://ghostbikes.org

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  2. I knew Chelsea. There's a big piece of the world missing, with her gone. Your words are a lovely memorial to her. Thank you. Alexis Rhone Fancher

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    1. You are welcome. Chelsea deserves a lot more. I don't have a way to contact her mom, but if you think this blog entry would be of any benefit to her, feel free to share it. I left the original of the sketch and a copy of the most Chelsea-centric passages at the ghost bike, in case somebody was collecting tributes to give to her.

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  3. Thank you so much for this blog post and the delightful video you posted. To me, Chelsea was one of my best friends, so I understand about the world not feeling right without her anymore.

    And I'm so sorry to hear about your disease.

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    Replies
    1. *internet hug* I hope I was able to help a little. Every day, I find out more about how much Chelsea is loved.

      And don't feel too sorry about me. The disorder (it's not a disease ... long, complicated story) has been stable since I was very young. It's just stable in a potentially fatal way. I'm okay with it; I just tend to forget that I can still lose people who aren't signed on to that deal.

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