When I was 17, I met Kelly at a conservatory for young artists. She was a writer and I was an actor. We were not friends: she had what I wanted. She was calm and well-liked, especially by the boys, especially the most popular one, the rich one with the chiseled jaw and the curly blonde hair. She had long, perfectly straight shiny brown hair, the kind of straight that let her have Louise Brooks bangs without worrying that they would curl. Her eyes were a true dark brown. I couldn’t fully understand her appeal over, say, Miss Teen Pennsylvania, who also had made it into the program somehow. Kelly wasn’t flamboyant or buxom. She wrote poetry, swished her long brown hair and everyone wanted to sit with her.
After the conservatory ended, at one of the reunions, Kelly and I somehow sorted out a friendship. Despite her projection of having it together, she had a hard life at home, as did I. We stayed friends – close friends, best friends – for several years. She went to Haverford; I got into Bryn Mawr. I moved to Switzerland instead of starting as a freshman, and when I got back, she went abroad. In my sophomore year, we were in the same town at the same time and, when I had the bad luck to lottery into a maid’s quarter hallway of tiny rooms, she moved over from Haverford to live with me. There were ten rooms and only three of us, so Kelly and I took over multiple rooms, smoked, fingerpainted on the walls (for which we got hauled to the dean’s office), and lived the dissolute lives of overcommitted 20-year-olds. I spent 40 hours a week at the theater and failed classes. She dated inappropriate men and smoked weed. In between, we commiserated.
We didn’t run in the same circles and when her father stopped paying for school and I was put on a forced sabbatical for a year due to poor performance, we both strayed into the wilderness for a while, losing track of each other. She lived with a guy being staked out for selling pot. Then another guy who owned a used record shop. When I went back to school, I was different. Focused, ready to be done, living off-campus. Kelly was cleaning houses, living with another man, older. She was a survivor, but even survivors can only take so much.
We lost each other in the tides of our twenties. Too many moves too quickly. No fixed address. No common friends. I assumed though, I guess, that that wouldn’t last. After all, we were best friends, had been best friends. That thread is thin but strong and I thought – I knew – we would uncover it sometime later, after our lives settled down.
Last year, I dug a little to find the thread. Google’s well and good but Kelly O’Brien is a common name and it took some looking, but I chanced on a profile with a picture at a communications firm in Manhattan and there she was. I sent her a Linked In invitation, she sent email with a a brief multi-year update, I did the same and we promised to meet in New York the next time I was there. That was April 3rd. When I went to New York in late April, I sent a note that got no response. She had been about to change jobs, so I let it lie. It’s been a complicated year for me, so I let it lie some more.
Yesterday, I pulled on the thread again and it unraveled. On April 28, 2008, Kelly had an aneurysm and died at 37, three weeks after our first communication in twelve years.
I don’t know what to take away from this besides grief. I’m horrified at her sudden, young death, terrified for myself for not being ready for either her death or my own. While we were separated only by time and distance, there was hope that I could repay her friendship, that we could come back together on an even playing field, that we could show each other what we had become and share some well-managed envy (after all, she did live in New York). I was worried to see her, I admit (as I am to see many people) – worried that I have not done enough, compared to what I hoped I’d have done by now, compared to what she had done, that I would not be able to coherently justify the time we were apart – but I loved her more and wanted to see her more than that worry. It’s hard for me to accept that that chance has passed with finality, that her own chances have passed with finality.
“Live each day as if it were your last,” has never held meaning for me. If today were my last day, I would be in a panic. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to write or do anything but mutter and weep. I get that that’s not what’s meant by the admonition, but you take my point: the pressure to complete my life would preclude meaningfully completing my life. (That circle has been an issue all my adult life.) Then how do you live in the knowledge of your death without death overshadowing your living?
“Don’t put off til tomorrow what you will regret having put off until tomorrow,” perhaps? And I don’t mean picking up the milk. Limiting regrets can be tricky, a full-time gig that gets in the way of doing the things that matter more (“I could have reached out sooner…even if I were a mess at the time and brought down by the experience,” and so on), but if it’s within your grasp and you can, now’s the time. Be brave.
What I am left with is what I was left with after the fire that killed my grandmother: see clearly, be compassionate, love R, act with courage, write.