I never believed I’d be writing another one of these posts so soon. Just last year I wrote my mom’s and now here I am, writing my best friend’s. I’m not a big fan of that term, “best friend,” because I think it gets overused and people throw it around too easily. It doesn’t do justice to the relationship Christina and I had.
As I’ve mentioned before, she and I have been best friends for 23 years. We met because we lived across the street from one another and our moms pushed us to be friends because we were similar in age (she had just turned 8 and I was about to turn 7). We were an unlikely duo because we were so different: she was always a chatterbox and the life of the party, and I was quiet and reserved. But, we made it work and we were inseparable until she moved away right after she graduated 8th grade. Even then, her family only moved 30 minutes away and we still talked on the phone for hours everyday and saw each other for sleepovers most weekends. We went on vacations with each other’s family and became so much more than friends. We really did become sisters.
Around 7am on June 5, 2005, I was woken up by a phone call from Christina’s stepmom. I let it go to voicemail because I was half-asleep and it didn’t register that if she was calling that early on a Sunday, it must be something important. I listened to the message and couldn’t believe what I was hearing: Christina had had a diving accident, she was in the ICU, and they thought that if she lived she would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life. I shot out of bed and ran downstairs and woke up my mom. I made her listen to the message because I really thought I heard wrong. She confirmed it, so I called my boyfriend and told him to come over and pick me up because we had to go to the hospital. When we got there, we were met by her stepmom who told us that Christina had some movement in her left hand, but that was about it below her shoulders. I remember thinking that at least she could still paint. She took me into the room and I saw her lying there, wrapped up like a mummy in the hospital blankets, only her face showing through. I was terrified to touch her for fear of hurting her, so I just stood there looking at her and we talked about random things. I distinctly remember looking up at the window and wondering how the sun could possibly be shining so brightly on such a horrible day.
Long story short, Christina went through hell during the next several months in rehab and ended up in a nursing home full of other people with spinal cord injuries and other neurological conditions. She lived there for almost 2 years and hated every second of it. I tied to visit her as much as possible, usually everyday, but it wasn’t enough. She worked extremely hard to get out of there and into her own apartment again (with a roommate and nursing care).
She seemed much happier when she got her own space and was able to set her own schedule instead of having to rely on the schedule set forth by the facility. My husband and I went down to visit her often (about 45 minutes away), usually ordering in food and watching movies or just hanging out and talking. We would usually sleep over, putting together a makeshift bed on the floor of her room. I felt like these nights provided a break for her roommate because I could get up with her and help her in the middle of the night with repositioning her legs and arms, getting her a sip of water, wiping the hair out of her face, scratching itches, and other things that all of us usually take for granted.
Christina never wanted to go out because she was self-conscious about her wheelchair and was nervous about what people would think. She had low self-esteem her entire life, something which I have never been able to figure out because she’s always been gorgeous and had her choice of boyfriends. If we did go out after her accident, it was usually to the movies, mostly because I think she felt safe and anonymous in the dark theater. I always wanted to push her to get out more because I thought the more she did it, the easier it would get. At the same time, I never wanted to push too much because her argument of “you don’t know what it’s like” was a pretty solid one. As crazy as it sounds, from the first time I saw her in the hospital up until a few weeks ago, I would feel incredibly guilty for even standing or walking around in front of her because I knew those were incredibly basic things she could no longer do.
During her time in rehab, she worked on learning how to draw and paint with her mouth. She was resistant at first because she didn’t want to have to compromise, but I think she realized pretty quickly that it was better than nothing. She loved art and knew she wanted to be an art teacher ever since she was 11 years old. When we used to play together when we were little, she would often create art projects for me to complete and she would play the “art teacher.” Once she moved into the nursing home, she wanted to try painting, so her dad brought her supplies and canvas. I remember my husband (boyfriend at the time) and I set everything up for her in the cafeteria and helped her paint her first mouth painting.
Over the past couple of years, her health started to deteriorate. She got a bedsore in 2007 or 2008 that left her bedbound for several months, and she was never the same after that. For at least the past couple of years her autonomic dysreflexia became a daily problem, causing her fevers, chest pain, nerve pain throughout her entire body, chills, cold sweats, and more. Taken alone, these symptoms seem manageable, and I believe they are to an able-bodied person, but I can’t imagine how awful they made her feel on top of everything else.
Last year, when my mom was going through chemotherapy, she mentioned at one point that she didn’t want to continue because it was killing her. This broke my heart because I was in denial and not ready to admit that my mom was not going to get better. I mentioned this to Christina and she started crying and asked if I would be angry with my mom if she decided to stop treatment. Then I started crying and told her that I would respect her decision but I would feel like she was giving up. I knew then that she was asking not only about my mom but about herself as well.
She told me in the spring of 2011 that she was going to start refusing antibiotics and let nature take it’s course if she got sick. She said she was tired of suffering and living a life that she felt was inhumane and compromised. She said that she wasn’t sure how much longer she could do it, and then proceeded to tell me about all the research she had done about her right to die. In the summer, she told me that she decided October 1st would be the last day she would eat or drink. It was scheduled to be the last day of her Disney World trip with her mom, sister, and Jimmy. She stuck to her word and stopped eating on October 1st as planned. She continued to take small sips of water as instructed by her doctor and care team, in order to swallow her pain medications. Something that she expected to take two weeks ended up taking exactly two months.
On December 1, 2011 at 9:30 am, I got a phone call from her little sister in Alaska. I immediately knew why she was calling, considering it was about 4:30am her time. I walked out into the hallway and sat down and listened to her tell me that Christina passed away just a few minutes ago. I started crying and couldn’t breathe and didn’t know what to do or say. I remember calling my husband and I think all I said was, “Kiki called” and he said “Oh, no.” I got in my car and drove home and then we went down to her apartment to be with her family.
Even though I saw it happen, and even though I saw her lying there after she passed, I still can’t believe it. Part of me has been mourning her since her accident because our friendship changed so drastically then, but I really never thought I would lose her so soon. She was supposed to my future children’s Godmother. They were going to call her Aunt Christina. Now they will never know her or my mom except through stories and pictures. We were supposed to grow old together and travel and she was supposed to become a famous artist.
Christina, I will miss you every day for the rest of my life. I know you’re up there dancing around and not suffering anymore, and for that I am grateful. You will forever be my very best friend and no one will ever replace you. You were the kindest, most beautiful, selfless, caring, funniest, giving, amazing person I have ever had the honor of knowing. Thank you for always being there for me and for being the best friend a girl could ever ask for. Lylas always, Er