We met in second grade, in our Bucks County grade school. Our teacher sent me to the bathroom to check on Stephany. She had run out of the classroom crying because a boy made fun of her. At eight years old, she was one of the tallest girls in the class. She was an easy target for bullies.
I don't remember what I said, but I remember I got her to laugh and eventually got come back to class. From then on, we had sleepovers, joined Girl Scouts, and watched Law & Order: SVU and Third Watch over the phone together each week. As we grew older, when we couldn’t hang out we would call and talk to one another for hours. She even taught me over the phone how to use tampons. It was totally life changing and might be one of the nicest things a girl has ever done for me.
I grew to meet and love every person in her family. I vividly remember the smell of their house — fresh laundry, literally, all the time, and perfume and body spray from some liberally fragranced teenage girls. As we grew older, we stopping hassling her younger sister and became a trio. The three of us were inseparable for many, many years.
Stephany used her tall frame to freak dance, her inventive brain to come up with wildly imaginative stories and songs, and her long, condor-like wingspan to embrace everyone she cared about. The last time I saw her was in January, 2013.
I was about to move to California and wanted to get all of my friends together for one last time before I left. We had drinks, tons of food, and spent a few hours all talking and getting one last hang out in before I left. Then, my boyfriend and I took a five day road trip from Pennsylvania to California, eventually landing in the Little Armenia section of Hollywood. I talked to Steph almost every day once I was in Los Angeles. I was very happy, but knowing only two people and not having a job to go to right away was incredibly stressful. Steph was constantly there, though, with optimistic advice and the kind of support that only a 17-year-long friendship can offer.
Two months after moving to LA, we were texting about work, how she was about to quit her job to spend time with her young son, and how excited she was to graduate college. The next day, I got a text from a friend.
The following days, weeks, and months were a whirlwind. Since we had just moved, I couldn’t afford to go back home for her funeral. I was aching to be near her sister, my other best friend, just to try to make sense of things, to be near someone who understood, to be near someone I could cry with, but I couldn’t.
I had to learn how to process things in my own time.
My initial reaction was shock and disbelief. I honestly thought it was all a joke, something stupid I was being fooled by, but it wasn't. At 24 years old, Stephany had died. She was leaving behind a toddler and a husband and a best friend and aunts and uncles and parents and siblings and it didn’t make sense. She had been so young. She would never reach milestones with her son, travel, sing, or talk to any of us again.
It hit me like a train on fire.
As the hours passed, I came to a stomach churning realization — Steph was due to receive a card I mailed to her that day. While the content was joyful — congratulations and adoration for a great friend who was weeks away from college graduation and a souvenir magnet — I felt sick over the idea of her family having to open it just hours after she had died. I very awkwardly alerted her sister, who later told me that her entire family read it and cried, but that they were happy tears. The words I had intended for inspiration actually served as an immediate reminder of the happy, fulfilled person Steph was, and provided a temporary reprieve from overwhelming reality.
Gradually, my disbelief and pain turned to accepting what had happened. Stephany was able to experience so many things in the short time she had. She was happy the night before she died and that made me happy. She wasn’t left wondering what it would be like to get married, to start her own family, to attend college, to be proud of who she was and what she had. She had done all of that. She didn't have to ever see her family suffer. She herself would not have to suffer.
Still, none of us knew what had happened. Her husband had woken up to the alarm clock blaring and his wife was dead, but why? I began to waffle between being at peace with her passing and being absolutely devastated. Then four words changed everything — Sudden Adult Death Syndrome.
Not a gunshot, not an aneurism, not poisoning, but sudden death. SADS has been reported in adults, old and young, from all over the world. Some superstitions say it’s caused by too many carbs before bed, some think it’s a supernatural power that suffocates sleeping victims, but most doctors believe that a sudden issue within the heart causes it.
So, what is it like when your best friend dies on the opposite side of the country? Isolating, confusing, depressing, devastating, and fuel for a lengthy list of nightmares and anxiety attacks. It’s dark and difficult. There isn’t a day that goes by almost three years later that I don’t think of her, whether it’s a happy memory, something I said while we were fighting, wondering about her final moments, or wishing she could be with me wherever I am. Some days are happy. Other days I feel like I’m drowning. Having a loved one die is like having a piece of yourself taken away that you can never get back. You may have good days, but you won’t be completely whole again.
Being a transplant is difficult in general, let alone when tragedy strikes, though geographical distance and time truly does help things hurt less. We all fear the day that our loved ones fall ill or pass away while we’re so far away, and for me, I got a crash course in dealing with it. It still hurts that my best friend died, but it doesn’t burn as badly as it did that day. Being so close with her family has helped tremendously. I can only hope that others who find themselves in similar situations are able to find support and hope in those around them.