A Facebook send-off

by Brian Clarey

A Facebook send-off

I knew her a long time ago — a real long time ago, like more than 20 years ago. And I hadn’t seen her since before I started shaving every day. But that didn’t make it any easier to watch her die.

This story begins back on Long Island, when the two elementary schools in our village merged in what used to be called junior high. I, along with about 20 other students, was placed in an accelerated track — a group of nerds, I guess someone looking in from the outside might have called us, and we were sort of okay with that appellation. We were the smartest ones in our classes — or, at least, we got the highest standardized test scores, and there were plenty of stereotypes in that room: the studious Asian (who went on to work in the Clinton cabinet), the other studious Asian (perfect score on the SATs), the offbeat genius (rode a unicycle), the troublemaker (smoked cigarettes by the train tracks that ran past the school), the enlightened feminist (we dated). There were quiet intellectuals, argumentative theorists, even a couple “cool” kids who gave us all a little bit of social cred.

Jill was cool. Real cool, in a 1980s kind of way. She wore her hair straight, with parted bangs. She wore lots of denim — the skin-tight kind, sometimes with pinstripes, which was the fashion back in that time and place. She wrote stuff on her jeans: song lyrics, the initials of her friends, the Van Halen logo. She hung out with the Metalheads, which was an important clique in our school, but she wasn’t too cool to spend time with the rest of us in our little ragtag band.

She was nice, I remember. As sunny and open as a perfect fried egg.

When I broke my thumb at the end of the school year, I remember she signed my cast with one of those glittery pink markers you had to shake before using.

We were friends throughout high school — not great friends, mind you, but we talked every day in the smoking section, back when high schools had smoking sections. And then we graduated, and like so many of my childhood friends she was a casualty of my destiny, which dictated I get the hell out of Long Island as fast as I could and never look back.

I think I saw her at my five-year high school reunion, but she was conspicuously absent at out 20 th . I didn’t think much about it at the time.

Then, right around Christmas, her older sister made a revelatory Facebook post.

Apparently Jill had been suffering from colon cancer since 1996, when we were both 26 years old. She fought it and won, and after seven years of remission she and her husband started a family. Her baby boy Nolan was born in 2004. And then the cancer came back.

It’s a terrible tale involving more than 30 chemotherapy treatments, five operations and unquantifiable hours spent in hospital beds and palliative care, writhing with anxiety and pain.

And underneath it all lurked a very heavy word: terminal. My friend Jill was dying, and there was nothing any of us could do.

Her final days played out in Facebook posts, her only window to the legions of people she had gathered about her over her inexorably short life. She tried to be bubbly and brave. She tried to smile through the anguish. And through Facebook we all kept up on her condition, offering prayers and happy thoughts, random memories and sincere gratitude.

I’m clicking through her Facebook photo page right now, seeing her dimpled grin, her beautiful boy, her strong and loving man — happier moments, frozen in time.

Her last post came through on March 12: “Another rough day, but I think I am on the mend. My mom and mother-in-law never left my side, helping me through this latest challenge. Who knew things could get so rough so quickly and turn again so quickly….. Hope to write tomorrow that I am back on my feet. Thanks again for the love.”

She died last week, and the word went out on Facebook, caught like gentle, cathartic fire. It burns still.

I did not know the woman who passed that day in a hospital bed, emaciated, no doubt, by an ongoing struggle with a beast too strong to slay — just as I do not know her husband, Brian, or her child, Nolan, who are left to continue on without her strong, shining presence.

I did not know this woman who fought back against cancer so valiantly for 14 years and celebrated her 40th birthday in the emergency room.

But I once knew a girl named Jill, who was funny and smart and cool in a way that touched my heart. I haven’t seen her since we were children, but I miss her anyway. And I won’t forget her.