Every year on this day, I am awakened by a familiar, unwelcome feeling. It tugs at me like a fish on a hook, trying to drag me down into the deepest, darkest depths of my memories. It’s the heaviness in my chest and the half smile on my face that is always just a moment away from turning into a sob. If I hear the wrong song. If someone says the wrong thing. If I allow my mind to wander, even just a little. It’s the summer of 1995 all over again, the last summer of my true youth; a forever open wound in my life story.
When I woke up on the morning of August 8, 1995, I had no idea that before the day was over, my entire life would change. Summer was drawing to a close and I was trying to squeeze every last bit of fun out of it that I could before I entered my sophomore year of high school. In the 1990s, August was music festival season in Michigan. People would criss-cross the state from one end to another, just to stand shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other intoxicated, overheated fans, watching their favorite bands play in open fields under the blazing sun.
My concert of choice that day was the Hootie and the Blowfish show at MichiganFest. Across the state, Boyz II Men was headlining another festival. Pretty much everyone I knew was going to one show or the other. I was excited, because the friend I was going to see Hootie with was related to the drummer of the band- and not just distantly related. They were first cousins! That meant we got the MichiganFest royal treatment, if there was such a thing- backstage both before and after the show, autographs, VIP seating, even a regrettable interview with a local TV news station. With Sun-In in my short, bobbed hair and my new denim bib-overall skort on, I felt like royalty as I stood next to Darius Rucker (or Hootie, as 99% of the world calls him) and smiled for photos, showing off my new, braces-free pearly whites. I think back on it now, and I still can’t believe I didn’t feel it happen; that I didn’t just inherently know something was wrong. Was I really too caught up in all the fun I was having to notice the gravity shift beneath my feet the moment my lifelong best friend died?
I don’t remember the day I met Anna, because we were both too young at the time. We were just babies- two sweet little girls with hippie mommies and badass daddies who’d been friends since before we were born. Our friendship was never a conscious decision. It just…was. I knew her phone number before I knew my own. Bumblebee ballet, first day of kindergarten, first slumber party, first scary movie, holidays, birthdays, vacations- we did it all together. I remember stealing fresh green beans out of her mother’s garden in the summer, and the day we became ketchup sisters- inspired by an episode of Punky Brewster, but too chicken to actually poke our fingers and become blood sisters.
I also remember my first real heartache, when Anna and her family moved from just down the street to a neighboring city. I laugh when I think about it now, how close she actually was- just a 20 minute drive away. But to an eight year old little girl who was used to running back and forth between her best friend’s house and her own whenever she wanted, it felt like a million miles. I remember running through the cornfields behind her new house in the country, pretending we were hiding from the “children of the corn,” and the time we got into a huge argument because she wanted to play basketball outside while it was drizzling, but I’d just gotten my first perm and couldn’t get it wet. (I already looked like a poodle, I didn’t want to look like a drowned poodle.)
A year after she moved away, she moved back. Same neighborhood, but a little further down the street. Most importantly, though- same school. Brownies, Girl Scouts, matching poodle skirts on Halloween with all of our friends. Roller skating, note writing, boyfriends. Petty vandalism, petty larceny, petty fights. Walking home from school and stopping at the party store to buy sodas in brown bags, then pretending like we were drinking beer and acting drunk the rest of the way home. We lived in the ghetto, so nobody ever seemed to notice. And if they did notice, they didn’t care. And then…growing pains.
My middle school self was a bit straight-laced and had this innate desire to fit in at all costs. Anna remained her wild and carefree self, doing whatever she wanted without the slightest bit of concern for what anyone else thought. She was so…audacious. We ran in different crowds, but there was always a deep bond that kept us tied to one another. We didn’t have to be friends all the time. Because we were sisters. We would always be sisters.
The last time I saw Anna was on our last day of 8th grade. We walked home together with our usual group of friends. I had my Walkman on. Ace of Base, “I Saw The Sign.” We walked arm in arm so that Anna could hear the music through my headphones. We laughed, we talked, and when we reached my house, we hugged goodbye. We were going to different high schools in the fall, and even though we avoided the subject, we knew it would change everything. I remember watching out my front window with tears in my eyes as she and the rest of our friends disappeared down the street, toward their own homes and separate futures. I knew nothing would ever be the same. But I had no idea I would never see Anna alive again.
I remember how my brain could not comprehend the words “Anna” and “dead” in the same sentence. How was that possible? She was always so vivacious, so full of life. Was it because she had a lot of living to do and not as much time as the rest of us to do it? Was the knowledge that her life would be a short one somehow woven into the fabric of who she was? I still couldn’t process it, even seeing her lying there so still, so beautiful. I just wanted to shake her and yell “wake up!” I remember clinging to the other two members of our childhood gang we called “The Four Musketeers” during those very difficult weeks and months that followed. There were only three of us left. And we couldn’t lose one another. Not ever.
It’s been nineteen years since Anna’s death, and I still hear her laugh every now and then. I’ll be in a crowd and I’ll hear it- that boisterous, unmistakable laugh. Then, before my brain even registers who it is I’m searching for, my heart reminds me that I won’t find her. Some people think that death is the end of a person’s life, the conclusion of their story, but I know that’s not true. Anna is still with me just as much as she ever was. She’s constantly teaching me lessons and giving me reminders when I need them- like to never stay too mad at anyone I love for too long, no matter what they did. To forgive, forget, and move on, because life is short. To love my life and the people in it. She’s the reason I occasionally throw caution to the wind and do something completely reckless and impulsive, not giving nearly enough thought to the consequences. And she’s the reason I always worry when my phone rings in the middle of the night, and when my children are traveling in cars with other people. Almost two decades later, and I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Today I mourn the loss of my best friend, my sister, and the life she could have had- the one I wonder endlessly about. But tonight I will celebrate the life she did have, and the impact she continues to have on the lives of those who knew her, with the only two other people in this world who feel her loss the exact same way I do. Somehow, over the years, we’ve remained close through marriages, kids, tragedies and triumphs. But we will never be “The Three Musketeers.” We will always be “The Four Musketeers Minus One.” We love you, Anna. Always.