I was nineteen when everything began to change. I left Michigan and began what I thought would be a new life in New York. It was Autumn, the start of my second year at NYU. The new school year was always chaotic. Freshmen wandering like lost dogs and Undergrads searching for new excuses to leave and smoke pot. I was wasting my parents’ money as I pursued a liberal arts degree. I was happy here because everyday was a day I wasn’t idle at home. I felt empowered as if I had control. On September 28th, I lost that control.
She sent a letter because she hated the phone, hated the way it distorted her voice. I was in the top bunk as my roommate Paul was slaughtering some noob online in another Doom clone. Between his swearing and gloating I picked through her letter. Her handwriting was crisp, as if Cursive was just an excuse to showcase her skill. She always wrote far from the margins, the curse of a south paw she claimed.
The loops and lines spoke of her time back home, our home. The excitement she had for October, watching the subtle contrast of the gray and fading green. She joked that little fairies torched the trees just to turn them orange. It was getting cold and she wrote of no apology for stealing countless sweaters of mine.
She was happy at U of M, and went into a long rant about some mathematical theory that was lost on me. Her professors doted on her, she was sweet and a whiz with numbers. Her roommate had the greatest quality that any roommate could have, absence. She tried to describe her room but her overuse of adjectives had me lost by the second sentence.
At that point it was another letter, just like the countless others filling a shoebox. She waited till the end to say what she really wanted to say. It was signed, Love Jen, and underneath was, I’m sick Leon.
It felt vague; that simplicity, from a girl who was anything but simple, meant it was serious. “Fuck yeah! Headshot!” Paul screamed at the game. I felt hit. The blood was draining from my brain and I was losing focus. I re-read that line over and over again. I thought I missed something, there was another page or she had a slip in her perfect penmanship… But over and over again those words said the same thing. My stomach turned, I was scared.
It took two weeks to work out my classes. Paul said he would pry himself away from the game long enough to take notes. My professors were apathetic; how many times had they heard the excuse of a sick loved one? Either way it was October and I was back in Michigan.
I thought we’d meet in Ann Arbor but Jen insisted on driving out to Redford. I knew she wanted to go to Claude Allison, she was a sucker for nostalgia. The park seemed unchanged from when we were kids. The walking path twisted along the baseball diamonds, the tennis courts were vacant and the grass was mysteriously trimmed, even though no one ever saw who mowed it.
“Wanna race?” Jen said with a big smile as she exited my parents’ car.
“I thought you were sick?” My voice was cracking in the cold air.
“I can still beat you in a race. Last time I checked I’m undefeated.”
“That’s because I always let you win.”
“Alright then,” Jen smiled, “Go!”
She ran without hesitation. Her fit frame glided across the pavement, her long hair free in the wind. I watched her only to fail to realize we were racing. I twisted my body as I chased after her. She was laughing the entire time as I tried to catch her. She stopped at the east fence across from the parking lot.
I came to a slow finish, “I take it back,” I said catching my breath.
“So you admit to Jen Supremacy?”
“No. You just always win because you cheat.”
“True,” Jen playfully tapped my nose with her left index finger, “But I always win.”
She grabbed my hand and led me to one of the dug outs. We spent the better part of our youth watching invisible baseball games from there. Her face was flush with color from the running. She looked healthy, even better than I remembered. A part of me hoped she was being petty and that letter was just an excuse to see me.
“You know, I remember a lot of things. But I still don’t remember the day we met,” Jen said.
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah I was thinking about it the other day and I just couldn’t put it together. I knew we met in first grade but that’s it.”
“I guess I can understand… I mean, you were a monster back then.”
“Seriously, you used to torment everyone in Mrs. Mead’s class. You were an evil little girl.”
“I’m telling the truth. You were a bully, granted a cute one, but you were still a bully.”
“Let me guess, you stood up to me and made me change my ways.”
“No. Not at all. You used to beat me up all the time.”
Jen began to giggle, “Are you serious?”
“100%. It got so bad that Mrs. Mead called our parents for an intervention.”
“Oh, I now remember. My parents forced me to be nice to you so we started hanging out together.”
“Do you remember that you called my mom a communist? “
“What? No way.”
“Some how in your little first grade brain you confused the word Canadian with communist.”
“Oh God was I always like that?” Jen sighed between laughs.
“Till about third grade. You had a crush on Mr. Migliani so you got your shit together to impress him.”
“I can’t believe you remember all that.”
“I can’t believe you forgot it. You’re not that old Jen.” I nudged her with my shoulder as if it would kick start her brain cells.
“My memory has been getting fuzzy lately.”
“When’s your surgery?” Jen looked away as I asked that question.
“About a month from now. Kinda weird to have something growing in your head.”
“They’re not going to do it sooner?”
“They caught the tumor early. It’s small enough that we don’t have to rush it. I get to take all these colorful pills though.”
“You doing OK?”
“I guess. I’m not sure how I’m suppose to be acting. Kinda new at this whole cancer thing.” She was smiling, I never could see under that smile no matter how I tried, “Stop worrying! I’ll be fine. Cancer is the new cool thing, everyone is getting it.”
“I’m not gonna stop worrying till you’re in the clear.”
“It’s OK. You don’t have to be so serious about it. You have school so you need to focus on that. You shouldn’t even be here right now.”
“I’m not gonna just sit in my dorm while you have cancer.”
“Well don’t go doing anything stupid like dropping out. You’re my excuse to visit New York after all.”
“New York gets boring after awhile.”
“That’s just because you don’t know how to have fun Leon. Once I’m sans tumor lets eat a bunch of sugar and run around the city.”
I laughed, “You’re weird.”
“And without me you just don’t know how to have fun.”
She was a muse, a fireball of energy. I used to paint so much when she was around. Her voice was like the mixing of colors. She was always jumping to a different tone given the topic. I remember that day with her so vividly. My jaw was hurting at the end from all the laughing. It was the last day we spent when we were still able to keep The World at bay.
She was so fearless, nothing could break her. I hid beyond her strength for so long. So when things got worst I began to fall apart.
Jen had her surgery before Thanksgiving. Everything was OK. Around April of the next year she had a check up. The tumor was back, she wasn’t even done with Chemo. She joked that she was so popular since all the tumors wanted to get in her brain. I spent the better part of Spring busing between Michigan and New York. I was failing my classes, I hadn’t looked at a canvas the entire year. I was scared to do anything that would take her from my mind.
When the semester ended, Paul and I were cleaning out the dorm. I remember him telling me, rather offhandedly, I should get drunk and stop worrying. I yelled. Over and over again I voiced my frustration about everything I had to put up with. The young professionals that spent more time playing video games than working, the countless future leaders that were passing out in drunken stupors, the creative geniuses whose noses where covered in coke, all of them so disconnected from the fear and grief I had.
I loathed my youth, my generation, for all our apathy. I hated myself because I so bad wanted to disconnect like the others. I wanted Jen to be better, I wanted someone to feel sorry for me; I who was suffering through her.
By the end of my rant I realized how childish I was. I was always escaping. From my life, Michigan, even my feelings about Jen. I couldn’t walk away and I became angry. Stuck in this terrible waiting for life or death. I left NYU that Spring. I never went back.
Summer was rough but the warmth and light of the season masked our grief. I was on a first name basis with her doctors by June. Jen started to call me a lamp since I was such a constant fixture in all her hospital rooms. She laughed and smiled through all her procedures, still fearless of her own mortality.
Sometime around the end of July, Jen and I were alone in one of her many hospital rooms. The sky was burning yellow and orange as The Sun was retreating, Jen was glowing in its fading light. She was frail but never lost her air of pride, even then with her beautiful long hair gone. We were quiet, she was reading in bed and I sat at the window.
Suddenly she said, “I guess we have to say it don’t we?” Her eyes were still in the book as if she was speaking to herself. She continued, “I mean I know and you know, but we should still probably say it. I don’t want to jinx this or anything but,” She paused as she turned her head to me, “God I suck at this.”
“I know Jen. We don’t have to say it,” I said turning from the window.
“You sure? You’re pretty dense Leon.”
“You don’t have to say it.”
“Thanks,” She sighed in relief, “You look different. You seem taller or something.”
“Just the lighting I guess.” It became quiet again. We stared at each other saying our true feelings over and over again in our heads.
She turned her head away and said with a bit of sarcasm, “I screwed up your life, didn’t I?”
“Don’t say that. College and all of that can wait. I don’t want to be stuck in some Lit class while you’re here.”
“You always hated reading, didn’t you.”
“I’m too practical for words,” I laughed even though I was serious.
“I’ve been writing a lot actually. I keep forgetting stuff so I figured I should start writing it down. I mean, I could always ask you since you don’t forget anything.”
“You don’t trust my memory?”
“I do. I just want there to be a record of how I saw things. Don’t want you to corrupt the legendary Jennifer Sutton biography. You’d probably put space aliens or something in it.”
“You have to admit, Jennifer Sutton: Alien Hunter is a pretty cool title.”
“What are you going to do without me?”
“Nothing, because you’re gonna make it. You’re going to be some old lady eating Ginger Snaps and yelling at the neighborhood kids.”
“I hate Ginger Snaps.”
“Don’t worry you’ll grow into them.”
Jen laughed as she wagged her finger at me, “See! This is what I’m talking about.”
We both laughed and traded insults for a bit. We talked that night as if we were back at the dug out. I miss laughing like that. I miss words that were void of any true intent. I miss her. God I miss her.
Jen made it through the year. No idea how she did, but she did it. She didn’t last long though. February 12th… Fucking February 12th. I was angry. I asked the same question that everyone asked, “Why?”
Why Jen? Why now? Why wasn’t she strong enough? Why couldn’t I fix it? Why weren’t we good enough? Why do all those selfish pieces of shit masquerading around as people get to keep going but her, this profound human, this gift, why was she leaving so soon? There’s no reason for having to say good-bye when there’s still so much more to say.
What am I suppose to do with those dreams and words that were meant only for her? I kept trying, I kept trying to find out what I should do. But I couldn’t do a damn thing.
I was in the hospital waiting room with my parents, my mother and father were crying. I kept my eyes locked on a fashion magazine. There was a headline about the new Spring colors. I kept thinking I’d never see her in them.
Jen’s parents walked into the cold white of the waiting room, they couldn’t speak. It used to be months, weeks, then it was only hours left. Her father nodded at me. I knew that meant it was time. I wanted to run away again. I wanted to hide because if I didn’t see it then maybe it never happened.
I was the only one not crying. I sat there, watching the exits and planning countless escape plans. I stood and began walking towards the hall. The exit light vanished as I made my way down the hall and towards her room. I didn’t run that time; when you love someone you see it through.
It’s strange how hospitals have a way of sanitizing death. There’s this science, art, they have that masks such a painful and ugly thing. Bright lights, machines humming over the unbearable silence, the scent of flowers and bleaching covering the decay.
Jen was thin, that was the first thing that hit me. I saw her through everything but at that moment I realized how much this disease had ravaged her. Tubes and machines ran through her body, she was powerless as the disease was finishing its job. She deserved better I than that I thought; don’t we all deserve better than that?
How could this fearless girl lay there dying? I wanted her to stand to her feet, pull the sheets from the bed and tear the tubes from her veins. I wanted her to fight and die with that prideful smile plastered on her face. She didn’t deserve to wither away. She was always a lion not a lamb.
I stood at the doorway unable to move. I had the wrong room I kept thinking. Jen was fine, she was stronger than this. I wanted to save her, I wanted to stop it, some how lift her from that bed and fix everything. I wanted to move but I couldn’t. I was just so angry.
What was I to do with all those memories? I wanted to see it through I waited an excuse to look towards the future, it was suppose to be our future. I felt my cheeks becoming wet, my throat was getting sore from holding back the sobs.
Jen raised her hand from the bed. I managed my legs to her bed. I knelt as I watched a corpse, a girl that was once so strong, reach towards my face. Her hands were sharp and boney. Her fingers stumbled clumsily across my cheeks and with a her index finger… Jen touched my nose as she always did. Every word that she never would be able to say, every thought, every feeling that would be lost after that day, it all was left to me in that simple gesture.
I sobbed. I cried, I tried yelling her name, tried begging for her to stay. I wanted a reason for something that had no reason. I wanted you to stay Jen. I wanted you to stay so bad.
I don’t remember what happened after that. My parents said I had to be carried out of the room. I didn’t eat or sleep for days. I wanted validation for those feelings. I wanted that reason that would never come. I came to realize that the greatest injustice God has ever committed against man was silence.
Four years later, things settled. Time and habit are a strange cure for grief. I had escaped like always, I left Michigan and went to Chicago. I had just met Sara, everything was new again.
I got a package from Jen’s parents. There was a small note inside the box but I didn’t read it. I knew what it was, I was actually waiting for it, it was Jen’s journal.
I never told Sara, there are so many things I’ve kept from her. Of all the things Sara and I share, Jen is one that I can’t. I’m far too selfish to share those feelings.
I took Jen’s journal that day and hopped on the Brown Line. I rode it to The Loop and kept jumping trains while I read. The journal was filled with her usual off-margin perfection. She wrote about everything she did through her treatment. I rode those trains all night, reading and re-living a time I tried so hard to forget.
Towards the end she wrote in print, she had lost use of her left hand in November. She wrote about something I had forgot about. I then saw the importance of having two sets of memories.
Jen wrote about one day after her birthday when I laughed at her for something she said. Jen said when she died she wanted to be reincarnated as The Sun. She wrote that I told her she was already a big yellow ball of gas. In her words she wrote about how she wanted to be a reason for people to wake. That profound sense that your existence has such an impact that it moves someone. Egotism aside, she wrote about how she wanted to be a symbol, something that gave people warmth and hope. She wanted to be a reason for those who had lost all reason.
Towards the end there were a few pages directing her parents to withhold the journal from me after her death. The last page was a terrible drawing she drew of the old dug out. On top of the image, written in what I can only believe was her best attempt at right hand cursive, was the word Live.
I closed the journal. A group of strangers filled the train, unaware of the story… our story. My eyes filled with tears as I smiled, her strength even after her death dwarfed me. We never said it, because we never had to. So I’ll write it here as a memory for both you and me:
I love you Jennifer Sutton. I love you for giving me a reason, I love you for everything you’ll never be. Because everything you were… I love you Jen.
I love you.