Sometimes death comes for the old, and sometimes for the young. And sadly, like life, it rarely makes much sense when it does come.
It was 8.45 am and my phone was vibrating. Ella’s name flashed on the screen.
The call was probably a mistake, an accidental pocket-dial, I thought. We usually text each other and she would be at work by now. Why would she be ringing?
“Hello?” I said.
“Hi. I have some bad news,” she said.
Not in a light-hearted I have some good news and I have some bad news kind of way, but I have bad news, and are you sitting down?
“Jenn died in the weekend. I’m so sorry to tell you this.”
I had heard Ella correctly, but I couldn’t connect the words in my brain. Ella, a friend of two decades, gently explained everything she knew, allowing me the grace to stay silent.
Jenn, my childhood friend, was five days older than me. She was 32.
It didn’t make sense. We were supposed to die when our hair was white and our bones tired, aged prunes, wrinkled and full of history, with thin, papery skin. After a good innings, so they say. This, I knew, to be an unspoken rule of death.
Your thirties are for living and loving, playing and learning, and earning, and travelling, or raising a family, or whatever you like, but they are for living. Not for dying.
I thanked Ella for ringing, for making an uncomfortable phone call. Then I hung up.
For a few minutes I stared at the scratched black mobile in my hand, the bearer of bad news, before placing it softly on the coffee table, scared it might ring again.
Unsure what to do, I slipped on some socks, laced up my shoes and headed out into the cool air for a run. I ran alongside a stream and through a park where trees were dropping orange and red leaves in the breeze. I played a podcast so I didn’t have to be alone with my thoughts.
I had known Jenn since I was a child. From the late nineties and into the 2000s we spent our free time hanging out, swimming, having sleepovers, making amateur horror movies, and skipping school together. Jenn, I thought, was brave and edgy. But she was kind, too. Her hugs were tight and she adored animals. She liked to put on silly voices and tell me funny stories, and we would laugh until we choked on air. We talked about when we would start shaving our legs (her before me), and rock music, and boys we liked.
One day, guided by youthful, foolish bravery, I decided to ask my crush out on a date and Jenn and our other best mate, Megan were by my side as I tracked his name down in the phone book and nervously tapped the number into the landline phone.
As I hung up the phone Jenn and Megan looked at me.
“What did he say?” they asked eagerly.
“He said ‘no’.” I replied.
Jenn was there, through it all. Through those bumbling, funny, years when our bodies were sprouting and stretching, and our hormones were busy being radicalised. When everything was so intense and so now because that’s the way it is when you’re young and dumb and you can’t comprehend the incredible gift that is having your whole life ahead of you.
But somewhere in there, amongst all the angst and mayhem, bad haircuts, and late night gossip sessions, Jenn grew sick. She became secretive and guarded about food. I told a teacher, and later a school counsellor that I was worried, something wasn’t right. They told me they would take care of it.
At 13 Jenn was hospitalised with anorexia nervosa. I arrived at her hospital bed with cards and gifts and a deep uncertainty of what all of this meant. At 13 you don’t really understand how the future might unfold.
Jenn would suffer from eating disorders for much of her life, an illness that I thought was like a carnivorous vine growing in her mind. I didn’t know how to reconcile my friend – who I knew to be creative, sparky, and intelligent – with the vine.
I hated how the vine hurt Jenn. And I hated that I couldn’t fix it.
After my run, I tracked down a phone number for Jenn’s dad and sent him a message, explaining who I was and asking if I might attend the funeral. I was nervous about intruding on a family’s grief.
I don’t remember with certainty when I last saw Jenn. I think we were near our mid twenties. Jenn had been admitted to a facility about five hours from our hometown near where I was now living. I remember walking through the gardens with her and talking. Her body had changed shape over the years, and at this time was lined with soft down-like fluff.
Jenn’s dad replied to my text: of course we know who you are. We would love you to come.
As a child Jenn’s family took me to their little bach at a beautiful nearby bay. No road access, no electricity, just the ocean and ourselves. My family didn’t have much money so it made me feel special to be invited, to ride on the boat and stay for the weekend. At night Jenn and I swam with phosphorescence, just us and a thousand million dancing lights.
It was magic like no other.
Like Jenn, I was deeply uncomfortable in my body, my skin was riddled with acne, and my hair was a frizzy embarrassment.
But Jenn, a talented artist, would present me with sketches of myself – cartoon, colour, black and white, lifelike – each time giving me a version of myself that I could believe in, that I felt proud of. I adored Jenn. She had been my best mate.
So why hadn’t I picked up the phone?
Why hadn’t I stayed in touch?
Where was I during Jenn’s hardest, darkest times?
I pulled a bag of salad out of the fridge and started to fill a bowl with green leaves. My phone vibrated. It was Jenn’s dad again: you were very important to Jenn back then.
The text tipped me over. I let the salad bag go and sank to the floor, green leaves sprinkling onto the white speckled bench-top. I clenched my fists. A peculiar sound, a shout, a cry, made its way out of my abdomen, through my throat and into the air in front of me.
I rested my head against the wall and cried sad, pathetic sobs.
I was angry. I was angry at myself for not getting in contact with Jenn. I was angry at Jenn for dying. And at the world for letting it happen.
I was angry that the unspoken rules of death could be broken.
Ella and I both went to the funeral. She flew. I drove. In our confusion we didn’t think to coordinate. The drive was long and winding, over passes, into valleys, and through forests where the snow had settled on the branches of trees.
I’d misjudged my timing and with two hours drive-time still to go I panicked that I was going to be late to the funeral. I didn’t have time for my original plan – to detour to my sister’s house to change my clothes – so I stopped on the main road at a popular cafe.
I ordered a toasted sandwich then ducked into the bathrooms. I slipped off my track pants but caught a foot in a pant leg and bounced about, banging my arms against the cubicle walls as I tried to free my trapped foot.
I looked at myself in the mirror. Age, I realised, was beginning to settle itself into my face. So why didn’t I have it together more? How had I let my messy, disorganised manner follow me from childhood into adulthood?
Ten minutes later, keys in one hand, toasted sandwich in the other, I climbed back into my car.
Melted cheese was oozing out of my sandwich so I laid an old t-shirt on my lap to catch the drips. I didn’t want greasy cheese stains on my designated funeral pants.
For all my teenage years I was, for no good reason, desperate to leave the town I was about to drive into. I knew the world was bigger and badder, and I wanted to see it all. Only with age and hindsight, can I acknowledge the small beachside town where I grew up for what it really is: sunny, safe, and beautiful.
I’ve returned home over the years, but this time was different. I was swamped with memories. This place, these people, had shaped my formative years. Despite all the time away, my identity was etched out here, whether I liked it or not. And Jenn was a significant part of that.
I met Ella outside a serene Japanese garden, a place we had all played together as children, and hung out together as teenagers. It was an eight minute walk to the chapel.
I had one napkin, which I’d kept from the cafe. Ella handed me a crumpled soft tissue, insisting earnestly it was clean. I thought Ella was just the kindest human at that moment. People were standing around outside the chapel. Inside, music was playing from a laptop and photos of Jenn and her artwork dotted the walls and tables.
High school friends I hadn’t seen in years attempted conversation with me. I didn’t make it easy for anyone, it was a pained, staccato performance.
“Do you have kids?”
“Probably a good thing, they’re a handful you know!”
All I could do was smile politely. I was jittery and scared my voice would crack. I turned my eyes up to the ceiling. Hold it together, hold it together.
“When did you last see Jenn?” someone asked me.
For years I wondered if I had been enough for Jenn. If I could have been a better friend. If I should have spoken to another teacher, another counsellor, said something sooner. I’ve stewed over all of the haves – should have, would have, could have.
But when death arrives everything is too late. Time is locked into place and no more can happen, no phone calls, no second chances.
By our late teens Jenn and I had drifted along different paths. Jenn attended school infrequently and in my final year I dropped out in search of a bigger, badder world.
I was scared of someone asking me, where have you been all these years?
The eulogies were honest and tender. Ella and I cried silently, and laughed at funny stories a little too loudly. Jenn was wild, beautiful, and kind. Everyone agreed she had a rough road in life, but boy, did she have soul.
In an ode to Jenn’s creative flair, her coffin was covered in pictures, drawings and messages from loved ones.
We were all invited to get up and write our own message with black marker pen. A woman stood up, tripped and nearly smacked into Jenn’s coffin. I chuckled quietly – I like to think Jenn would have laughed too.
This is the weird reality of death. It’s not glossy and smooth like the films tell us. Death, like life, is clumsy and unpolished. It’s blotchy red faces and trembling hands. It’s banging about in a toilet cubicle and catching cheese drips as you race to a funeral. It’s glancing skywards to fight back stupid tears that you don’t want to tumble down your face because you’re not sure you can catch them all.
Death, like life, hurts.
After the farewell we stepped outside the chapel and hovered about. The sun had slunk away and there was a chill in the air. We were all invited for drinks, food, and sharing of stories back at Jenn’s family home.
Stepping into the house, everything was how I remembered it – the curtains, the computer desk, the picture frames. Just without Jenn.
As I looked at all the faces in the crowded living room, I wondered if maybe Jenn was just in her bedroom, or in the bathroom, and she was about to pop out any moment now. Perhaps all of this was in fact just a terrible mistake, or a terrible joke.
I poured myself a wine to manage my nerves, grateful to have Ella by my side. A few months ago I had been sorting through old belongings, Marie Kondo-ing my life. I binned a bunch of video tapes. I figured I hadn’t watched them in 20 years, I didn’t have a video player, and even if I did, I wasn’t sure I wanted to watch the tapes. Dragging up history felt like work.
After Jenn died I went digging through my old boxes and found photos. But I’d binned our homemade horror films, along with sketches of me that Jenn had drawn.
As Jenn’s family and friends reminisced about those homemade movies, I couldn’t bring myself to admit that those childhood remnants were sitting in a dump somewhere. So, instead I passed around photos from high school.
There was Jenn, always posing or pouting or pranking the photo, and me, with my acne skin and unruly hair, giggling.
Lately, Jenn had been sharing photos on Facebook of her dog Batman, whom she adored, and her partner Brian, whom she loved. They were always at the beach. Jenn, Brian, Batman.
I’d not met Brian, but from the photos I was wary. He was older and looked rough and tough. But if I was suspicious, Brian was open and welcoming. He spoke kindly. He didn’t drink. He loved Jenn, even her darkness, he said.
I asked Brian if it would be okay if I gave him a hug. He said yes.
When the gathering began to wind down, and people trickled home, I thought about how Jenn’s family would be left with empty wine glasses and empty plates, but most of all the emptiness of their home.
I wanted to keep hugging Jenn’s parents, squeezing them. I wanted to tell them I’m sorry. To tell them I’d believed in the rules of death: that we don’t die before our parents. I wanted to tell them how much Jenn meant to me. And that they had raised a kind and loving daughter.
But my words came out clumsy and awkward.
Jenn’s dad told me that Jenn’s last year was her happiest in a long time. I think we all found solace in this. After I dropped Ella off I drove to my sister’s house and tried to make sense of the day, the week, my childhood, my youth.
Friends wanted to ring me. But I couldn’t talk about Jenn.
I felt like I didn’t have a right to grieve or feel the way I felt. How could someone who I hadn’t seen in years have left such an imprint on my life?
Unsure what to do, I slipped on some socks, laced up my shoes and went walking.
Nearby is a beautiful coastal walk that takes five days. I meandered along the beaches, through forest, and across the bay where Jenn’s family has their bach – complete with electricity now.
I thought about the night with the phosphorescence. I thought about all the memories, the giggling, the funny voices. I thought about how friendships can fade in and out.
Late one afternoon on the walk, just before the sun went down, I stripped off and went swimming. Maybe if I couldn’t walk away my guilt, I could wash it away.
Jenn had died unexpectedly in her sleep. I think deep down, part of me had been aware that she might die young. Her body had been under immense strain for a long time.
I know now that my rules of death are folly. Sometimes death comes looking for wrinkled prunes and a good innings. And other times it looks for someone else, someone younger, and it doesn’t make much sense.
I don’t have the sketches or home-made horror films anymore, just a youthful friendship – ripe with fun and silly jokes, tight hugs, and angst – perfectly locked in time.
My relief comes in knowing that death cannot take away the night of the phosphorescence.
Just Jenn and I in the ocean with a thousand million dancing lights.
Magic like no other.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us hire more journalists and do more investigations. Or get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.