“I remember you. ‘You’re in her drawing space’.”
That was how Erica greeted me, that first day of Geometry class and the second trimester of our sophomore year. It was said with a grin and a touch of wariness as she watched me from the desk to my right, and I remember simply being stunned.
I’d known who she was, too. You don’t forget the person who made the funny face in your third grade class picture. But I had no recollection of being such an awful brat – not that I doubted it. I was mortified, then profusely apologetic. She’d only laughed, settled back into her seat, and shrugged it off. “S’fine, you’re not that person, anymore. So where did you go to junior high?”
That had been all it took. We hit it off immediately. She’d doodled while we talked, and that doodling transferred to the blackboard beside her when she‘d realized there was chalk in the tray at her elbow (she was up against one of those folding walls between classrooms). Sometimes I look back on those days with pity for our poor teacher, who was in his first year, as we utterly distracted the class by drawing on that board every day. It became a game, of sorts. She would start a line, and I’d make the next, and so on, until an image formed. Our greatest piece is what she called, ‘The Bobbitt Angel’, an elegantly draped angel with a giant scythe. It was erased by the next day, of course, but I still remember it clearly.
What I remember of that year was full of laughs for us. We had a third person who we were almost always with. We started sleeping over at one another’s houses, though mostly I went over to hers. My first night there I was horrifically ill all over her father’s office. What a first impression I must have made. But they let me come back, and the sleepovers continued. Mostly we worked on homework and then plotted stories for our role play characters on IRC (where there are still many friends), and those were the best nights of all. Weekends consisted of us staying up until about 5:00 am, chattering away and talking through stories and creating more back stories, theorizing how we could make certain ideas work … and then finally crashing only to be woken up less than an hour later by her father’s grinning face as he’d bring us white chocolate mochas. She always smiled when she remembered that part and would say, “He was too damn happy to be mad at!”
Then the bad news came. Cancer. I was terrified. People were going to be scared, people weren’t going to understand, people were going to leave. I had been there, I had been the sick one that everyone left, and I didn’t want that to happen to her.
I vowed right then that no matter how scary it got, no matter how dire, I wasn’t leaving her side.
She went away to England and brought back so many pictures, so many stories, and she started the first round of her fight. We started a new school year, painted TMNT murals on my bedroom walls with a smattering of original characters thrown in. Her Klork character stood guard at my door holding his F.O.G.U. (Federation of Golden Undies) boxers, all six feet of him. I asked to go to appointments with her when they weren’t in the middle of school, and worried about her every time I was in class and she wasn’t. We went on Scout outings, stayed after school to work on musicals and plays, and explored the freedom her car gave us whenever we could. ‘Three’ tapped out, saying we were ‘so ready for her to die’ when that couldn’t have been further from the truth … she cried, fumed, ranted, and eventually thrust it aside. I quietly raged. We moved on. Senior year came, the cancer was gone, and we wrote more. I still have the notes that were passed to me, written by her in her classes, because so many of them had character doodles on the side. Many of them were in-character, as well, and when that wasn’t frequent enough for us we began purchasing cheap spiral notebooks to pass back and forth to continue our role plays and plotting. At one point we had four of them that we traded to each other in the hallways, or during those few classes where we sat together. I still have those, too.
People began thinking we were a couple. I cut my hair short when she lost hers (because she wouldn’t let me shave it, too) and we were always together. Our parents were not exempt. We ignored it for the most part and laughed the rest. Once, a few years later, we decided to discuss it seriously (as serious as you can be while painting Sailor Moon on a bedroom wall), because heck. Everyone already thought it, right? Yeah, that got laughed away fairly quickly. While we were close and always wanted to be, the idea of being intimate just didn’t work. So then we pondered…what if one of us were the other gender? More importantly, what if one of us were healthy? Naw. Still couldn’t. We both were attracted to dark hair and dark eyes in guys. And that, my friends, was the end of that.
New Year’s Eve, 1999 Erica introduced me to Leah by way of a sleep over at Leah’s house. She filled the void the previous Three had left empty and expanded it. Previous Three had been a place holder, prepping a spot for what would become a stronger friendship than any of us could have expected.
Over the next few years we were together as often as our time would allow, until further growing in to adulthood separated us with distance. Leah went to the Air Force, Rica went to college, and I stayed home. Her cancer came back, she popped to and from Bellingham, she had a head shaving party that I can barely recall, and I worked until my liver gave out a few months later. Rica and Bryan came to see me in the hospital. Leah sent her mom, since she couldn’t leave. I was given two weeks and somehow survived another six months until I got the liver. Rica babysat me that first week, coming over to sit with me, help me out of the chair, and watch Shrek with me while my sister had to be at a parade for band. There isn’t much I remember of the year before that very clearly, but that first week and sitting in the living room with her… is clear as a bell. We talked about how scared she’d been, how she didn’t know where the stories would go, how hard it would have been to not talk to me every day – because it was every day. Even apart, we’d been on the computer to chat, though a few quick calls were tossed in here and there.
Then and there we gave the other the rights to all things pertaining to the stories, in the case one of us went. She promised to make them a comic, I promised to make them a book, so they would never sit unshared. We cried at the thought, brushed it aside because it wouldn’t happen now that transplant was done and cancer being treated properly, and continued.
More time passed. Cancer went away again, she finished school. There were weddings, hers and mine. I moved to Nebraska and she told me to download Skype. This enabled us to continue talking every day, and since Brian was deployed for nearly the entirety of the first year we were together, Rica and I were on a call for almost every free minute. For me, this was the majority of the day and for her, it was when she was off of work. It still tallied up to about four hours a day of nonstop calls. She moved out of her apartment and up to her parents’ place for a while, and Skype didn’t work up there. It sounded like someone trying to talk through a fan. So we used the chat feature and continued to plot stories on IRC. When she moved into her house with a very young Warren at home, she started the calls back up immediately. Told me she ‘needed adult conversation’. And our calls went from a few hours to most of the day. Leah moved from Hawaii to DC and Rica immediately wanted to start a tabletop campaign, with Bryan helping out (and playing with us, of course). The calls were now all-day. She and I would create our stories – which were rapidly expanding as we read better books – and we would play her campaign until 1:00 – 2:00 am for me. Then I’d be back up at 8:00 my time to run out the door and get errands done in time to meet her back online at 10:00 am. That was when she would sign on, as it was 8:00 am for her. The group chat with Leah, Erica, and myself started then, where we would have a morning ritual of saying hello to one another from our separate time zones. Leah would tell us about her day, about the ridiculous things that would happen to her, and she joined us for calls whenever she was able.
Cancer came again after Lala (little Leah). Brian bought me a ticket home as soon as he heard. I flew from Nebraska to be with her, though due to scheduling I wasn’t able to stay for her mastectomy. She Skyped me from her hospital bed, anyway, unable to wait until she could get home to talk. Still smiles, still laughing, telling every nurse who walked in that she was talking ‘with her hospital buddy’. Cancer went away again, and she jumped head-first into more plotting, and this time we created an entire world.
Continents, characters, cities, temples, deities, guilds, a school, bloodlines, even creation stories for each race. Everything was still heavily based on MERP (if you haven’t played this tabletop setting … I both pity you and think you have escaped with your sanity), though we had a hard time coming up with names on the fly for our countries and realms so we sort of just .. threw a language at each one and named every city in its borders using it. Later, we planned to fix that. There was always later, because we were better! Still broken, but better! We never did change them.
Cancer came back again, this time with the removal of the lower lobe of her right lung. She had a drainage tube with a glove attached at the end. There were more calls from the hospital bed, though her drugs were stronger this time so talking time was shorter. She continued to fight, and our calls resumed when she returned home, often with the video up because her kiddos wanted to come ‘shake the hand’ that was hanging from her side. They were little and didn’t know better, but another pair of eyes didn’t hurt.
Brian got out of the military in February of 2013 and we moved back home. Creation took a momentary hiatus as real life took over. We’d just started to get back in to the swing of things when my kidneys died and dialysis started. Again, Rica and I talked about what to do if the other one went, though we thought it would be me. I thought it would be me. I gave her everything. She reminded me that it still held in reverse, and the calls were again shorter. Dialysis took up over four hours every other day, with mandatory sleep and vomit time afterward, but I still came home and sat to talk with her before crawling in bed. I was okay, I’d tell her, just another headache. And we continued. Rica started a new tabletop campaign that we met up for at her place every month, usually with a food theme for that day. They were so careful to make sure there was food for me (damn renal diet) and somehow we still gorged on junk food. The one day a month all of us threw discipline out the window when it came to snacks. The rest of the month she and I were on calls. We babysat each other. We kept each other company for the bad days where our bodies ached and our hearts were sick. Our husbands know how close this made us, because they would come home to see a call and knew who it was with. It was every day. The Bri/yans got to the point where they’d start shenanigans, laugh, and say, “Oh, it’s just Rica!” or “It’s just Jenn!”
The month before I got my kidney, her cancer came back. I had been in bed taking a nap after dialysis and came back to the computer to see her message in our group chat. She was terrified. “This cancer is going to fucking kill me,” she said. I remember that clearly, and my heart still hurts. There were pages of text from her, the sort that happen out of terror and rage, and Leah and I did our best to calm her down. Then Leah came over and we cried. We didn’t show Rica how we cried, but she knew. We always did our damnedest not to show her how scared we were, but she always knew. She was scared, too. Of course, we cried with her, too. We didn’t keep secrets.
Rica threw herself once again into creating stories when we weren’t playing on MMOs, though we started playing on a role play server on WoW. Another variation of stories emerged from that, where more plotting began, and gave us new directions for the original setting, too. Things were tweaked, shifted so they settled more comfortably in place for the created world’s timeline. We now had over two hundred characters dedicated to this world, so it was time to start charting out who lived where, what their alignments were, etc. It never stopped. By this point, we had a dialogue so free and easy between all of our characters that we could walk out in public ‘talking’ for them and nobody knew the difference. Which we did often.
Then the cancer spread. Brain cancer. We continued plotting up until the day of her cyber knife. The next morning she was chatting with me, and it was so …odd. I remember stopping and staring at it, my heart frozen. I should have listened to my gut. I laughed instead, asked her what she’d meant. Said she was being silly and went to run her errands.
She had her grand mal seizure that morning, in her van, in a parking lot. Nobody was with her. The police broke her out of her car. And I shattered. Leah and I flew up to her place the next morning, sat with her all day. Talked with Bryan about what had happened. Rica urged me to eat, somehow, which she didn’t remember later. She was always trying to get me to eat, and we laughed about it because even as injured as she was she knew me. I came home and cried some more.
The silence started then. Skype calls didn’t happen every day. Before that, I could count on one hand the number of days in any given year we didn’t have a call going – two if she led Day Camp that year. Then weeks went by without a call. I cried, tried not to, and ended up crying more. The stories stopped. We never picked them up again. We would loosely talk about them when she wanted to talk about anything but her treatments, more discussing what would happen between characters instead of directly planning for them. The calls eventually came back, and though they were almost every day again, they were much shorter. She was very tired from chemo, from the pain in her ribs from the liver tumor pushing them, from constantly being sick. But she didn’t want the quiet, either. We needed those calls. They were part of us.
Then the cancer decided it was done being easy on her. We simply talked more, plotted less, and spent more time together. She made Leah, Brian, and I promise to watch Bryan. To not let him become a hermit. To not let him hide away. To teach her children how to properly play a tabletop campaign. To help him, and to not forget about him. She got her puppy, the Dane she’d always wanted, and named her after one of her more stubborn wolf lycanthrope characters. One I already have in three finished drafts (which she loved).
And she made me promise to write our stories.
After her cruise at the beginning of September, the calls were even shorter. An hour or two, at most. She was in so much pain but she wanted to talk to me, needed her distraction. Doctors had given her so little time. Months. She had things she wanted to wrap up, others she didn’t, but her list somehow kept growing. She told me what she wanted done with our online guild. Said she didn’t want to write her characters’ exits because it was too depressing. I told her she didn’t have to. I stopped sleeping as much, because each minute I was awake was one that went by slower than if I were asleep, and I didn’t leave the computer. I didn’t want to miss anything she had to say.
We talked on Sunday, the 8th for a couple of hours in a call. She was in pain, but was still Rica. They’d told the kids. She wanted to play online for some more distractions. She invited all of us over for the following Sunday, just to be together, and we made it a plan. I had a song in my head that I apparently sang only two notes for, and she finished it. We laughed, she said that even with a broken brain she still knew me enough to know what I’d been thinking. And I cried some more. She called me again on Monday, but was in so much pain that after only a half-hour playing online she was so lost and frustrated that she started crying. She wanted to play for a distraction but sitting hurt.
It was the last call I’d have with her.
I received a text from her on Wednesday. She was in the ER again, and her drugs were really strong. I told her I loved her, as I have a thousand times before, but to let the meds do their work. I got back ‘Ono.ioo’. Leah says this is ‘I know’, I think it’s ‘you, too’. But it was returned, like always.
She messaged me through FB on Thursday before going in to hospice, saying she was going to be there so they could manage her pain better. It was going to be only a few days. I asked if she still wanted to get together on Sunday. I never received a response. The next day she fell asleep and never woke up. Bryan told us to come up Saturday morning and the three of us flew out the door to be at her side. I didn’t leave the room for six hours. I didn’t want to leave. I promised her. No matter how hard. I was going to be with her. We were back up on Monday, and I laid my head on her shoulder and fought off the tears. It was good-bye.
I love her, more than I probably should, but it never felt like enough. It was never the romantic variety that so many people thought it was, but so much of me left with her that I’ll never recover. She was my soul mate, just as my husband is, and each of them filled a separate part of my heart. I don’t know how to be myself without her. The pain eases a bit when I’m going through the logs of IRC role plays, because her voice is there. Her heart is there. And there are years to go through. I have logs dating back to 1998.
I’ll write it all. Somehow, because she made me promise to do it. But we never concluded it, and I feel so lost right now that I don’t know how to finish a story with a few hundred other people wrapped up in it without her. Maybe in time I’ll figure it all out, but I have to organize it first. I can’t just let it fade, she put too much of herself in it. And I love her too much to let her voice go silent.
It’s already too quiet.