What We Carry When a Friend Dies Young

When the Christmas card came, I could barely believe it. I held it in my hands like a butterfly, like something small and sacred.

I’d known Katrina forever, in the way I knew nearly everybody in my small Alaskan town. We’d been in middle and high school together, and except for a brief fling of a friendship in sixth grade, we hadn’t paid much attention to each other. But one day in my early twenties, on the porch of the blue house that I lived in with a mutual friend of hers, we discovered we’d dated the same boy.

“Yeah, he’s a total gigolo,” she said. We both laughed, and the ice was broken. My perception of her jolted and shifted, rearranging itself within moments. We became fast friends.

Katrina introduced me to the book "The Highly Sensitive Person," a description that fit us both like a glove. Our conversations became long and coiled and usually took place while we hiked a mountain or sat on a dark, rocky beach. We talked about boys and about our families, about anxiety and acupuncture. We talked about feeling stuck in Alaska, the mountains holding us in, isolating us from the world beyond our small, rainy town.

When I escaped to Maine a few years later, we wrote each other long letters and planned visits. But before that ever happened, my brother died and I moved back to Alaska. In my grief, I felt isolated from most of my friends, whose lives revolved around dating, studying and partying. Katrina stayed nearby though, meeting me for walks and listening as I vented about my loss. “I think I would go crazy if my little brother died,” she once said. The admission comforted me, as if she’d given me permission to feel a little crazy.

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A few years later, I moved to Washington to finish up school, and Katrina moved to Taos, New Mexico, for a fresh start. We talked on the phone often, and considered meeting up for Christmas, since neither of us planned to return to Alaska for the holiday.

One Wednesday in mid-December, I came home from class to a voice message from her. “Hey, I was hoping to catch up. And I wanted to get your address for a Christmas card. I’m starting my new job on Friday — why don’t you call me back Friday night?”

I couldn't wait and immediately picked up the phone and called her back. We always had plenty to talk about, our words running into each other’s as we pored over our feelings for men or a job or our next adventure. I paced around my apartment as she filled me in on the new guy she’d met and the rowdy younger roommates she was living with. I told her how nervous I was about graduating, and how I wanted to move back to Maine but wasn’t sure I could leave my parents again.

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“Someday we’re going to look back on the things we worry about now," she said, "and laugh.”

We talked about the future. We talked about marrying, mothering and mortgages. We talked about how we were starting to catch glimpses — sweet, scary glimpses — of the people we might become.

Two days later, after she’d finished her day of work at a ski lodge’s daycare, she went for a bicycle ride. A car hit her, and she was killed instantly.

The months after her death were a painful blur. I couldn’t bring myself to fly back to Alaska for yet another funeral. I returned, however, a few months later and spent time with both her mom and her younger brother. I took the ferry from Washington to Juneau, three days of pushing through the gray-blue sea, past the jagged mountains that had supplied the backdrop of our friendship.

A few years later, after I’d moved back to Maine, I received a piece of mail from Katrina’s mom, who I’d kept in touch with. She’d found the Christmas card Katrina had wanted my address for among her belongings. It simply read:

Merry Christmas. Hope to see you soon. Love, Katrina.

It’s been nearly 13 years since her death and my life looks like the one Katrina and I talked about on that last phone call. I’m married with two kids. My dining room window looks out on a small patch of Maine woods, a softer version of the Alaskan landscape of our homes. And yes, I shake my head about the things we worried about in our twenties.

It’s strange to enter middle age without her. I often wonder if she hadn’t died, would we be sending each other short texts offering excerpts from our lives? Where would she be living? Would she have a bunch of kids?

The one thing I can’t quite shake off is the guilt of living the life we’d talked about — without her. People always talk about closure, but I don’t believe it really exists when we love someone and lose them. I still miss Katrina and always will.

We carry the dead with us, their spark and dreams, and sometimes, if we are very lucky, we get one last message, one last token, to bring along for the ride.

Tags: friendship