It’s easy to take life for granted, to take the people we love for granted. It becomes easy because we lose sight of the fact that our entire universe can change in an instant. It can be hit with a tidal wave at full force and drown the things we care most about without so much as a warning. Instead, we tell ourselves that time is infinite, that our loved ones are invincible, even though we never know which crescent-moon smile will be their last. So we suppress the words “I love you” and wait for perfect moments that never come – and then it’s too late.
My oldest and best friend Jackie passed last year from Cystic Fibrosis. She was diagnosed with the lifelong illness at birth. When we were kids, her routine trips to the hospital had become so frequent that sometimes I’d forget she was sick at all. I was almost more used to seeing her breathing through tubes than without. But her spirit never seemed to notice. In fact, in the decades we’d been friends, we never once talked about her illness. Her bravery made it feel invisible.
We were just two years old when we met. My mother was dropping me off at daycare for the first time and I was screaming bloody murder and clamping onto her legs with a death grip. I suspect I may have had a minor case of separation anxiety. Jackie was the mess of blonde corkscrew curls who came to my rescue. She invited me to stack blocks with her, which was clearly one of the greatest offers I had ever received. Within minutes I was all smiles and giggles. My mom snuck out the back door and I forgot all about her existence until she returned to pick me up later that afternoon.
Jackie had been saving me ever since that day. Every weekend I was at her house building tree forts, covering her entire driveway in a city of chalk or prancing around her living room in princess gowns long enough to jump rope with. From burying time capsules to super gluing our hands together so that our play date never had to end, we had the kind of friendship most kids were envious of. I remember she wasn’t allowed to sleep over at my house very often. Her severely compromised immune system made her susceptible to everything, making it impossible for her to have a normal life. If I even had so much as a head cold, I wasn’t allowed near her, because if I got her sick, it could land her in the hospital indefinitely. Still, she never complained.
Jackie and I remained close for many years. We saw each other through all the angst, awkward phases, crushes, and crazy hair colors. But as childhood adolescence turned into adulthood, we started becoming very different people. We went to different schools and had very different friend groups. As I got older, I started traveling a lot more, so I was constantly out of the country. This made it difficult to maintain many of my other friendships, but still Jackie remained a part of my life.
Fast forward a few years and I’m living in Spain teaching English. It had been ages since Jackie and I spoke, but I knew that as soon as I came home, as I always did after a long time away, she would be there and it would be like no time had passed. By the summer of 2019, I remember seeing a post on Facebook that Jackie was in the hospital again. That she was awaiting a lung transplant. I remember thinking nothing of it, despite the magnitude of the procedure. Like it was as normal as her going to the dentist, if people remained in their dentist offices for weeks at a time on a monthly basis. I also remember thinking there was no way anything bad would happen to her and that she’d make it through just like every other time. I sent her a message wishing her a speedy recovery and mentioned that as soon as I was back in the United States, I would come visit her. She never ended up receiving that message, the message that I assumed she’d read from the inside of a fluorescent-lit hospital room a few hours after receiving her new lung. The next updated post I saw on Facebook came in 12 hours later informing acquaintances, friends, and relatives that Jackie, my oldest and best friend, was gone. I remember dropping my phone and collapsing to the floor before a river of hot, salty tears started streaming down my cheeks.
There were so many things I never got to tell Jackie. So much beauty about her that I only started to recognize once she was gone. She was the bravest person I knew. And she was the first friend I ever had. One who had the selfless ability to make me forget about her ailments, most likely because she didn’t want to be viewed as a hindrance. I never got to tell her how brave she was or how much I admired her. She was so much more to me than just a playmate. She was my entire childhood. My savior. And I never imagined I’d see her leave this world at just 27 years old.
Jackie’s death caught me off guard in every way. And although we can’t always plan for death, we can still make it our mission to remind our friends and relatives of all the things we love about them. Because the reality is that we never know how much time we have left. We never know which pastel-colored sunset, heartfelt conversation, or giant bear hug will be our last. Ever since Jackie passed, I’ve started showering my loved ones with compliments and praise. I started expressing affection as often as humanly possible. I stopped waiting to say “I love you.” I stopped telling people I’m not a hugger. And I’ll never take anyone for granted ever again, because we just never know what tomorrow will bring. But today, I know for certain that I will choose love.