As the frenzied searching years of our early adolescence settled into the more mellow late teens, Alexis and I began to regard each other with a familiarity and fondness that can only come from knowing each other nearly all your lives, much like I imagine sisters feel. Throughout high school, we were part of an inseparable quadruplet of girls (Ahoo and Liz completed the group) who bonded over hip hop, heavy metal, cigarettes, and excessive amounts of yapping and laughing. But as our senior year drew to a close, it seems we had all developed interests that diverted our attention outward. Alexis and I continued to check in with each other on a regular basis, but we made little time for each other as we became more entrenched in our first serious relationships. We were both partying way too much, but I was somehow managing to stay in college, studying psychology, while Alexis seemed to struggle with figuring out which direction she wanted her life to take.
I guess I should have suspected something was wrong when I called Alexis and she explained that she was about to move out of her condo because she was having nightmares and there were “too many bad memories” there. Maybe if I’d probed a little, she would have confided in me. I don’t quite remember the context, but I probably wasn’t expecting such a heavy statement. Maybe I just wanted the call to be quick and easy, a hi-just-checking-in-now-let-me-get-back-to-my-life call. So I didn’t push, and she didn’t offer any details. My heart drops to my stomach when I try to imagine even for a minute what I now know she really meant.
We spoke on the phone many more times after that, often saying, “We have GOT to get together – this is ridiculous!” She had moved back in with her parents in our old neighborhood – she was just a short walk away, yet somehow we couldn’t seem to connect in person. She did stop by my parents’ house once while I was out shopping with my mom, and she told my dad that she just wanted to come by and see the house where some of the happiest times of her life took place. They were some of mine too – me and my soul sister, together learning about life and love and each other.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I invited Alexis to my baby shower, and she said she’d come. The morning of the shower, I went to my parents’ house to get ready, and when my mom and I went outside to leave, there on the porch was a gift bag full of baby gifts with a casual note from Alexis saying that she couldn’t make it after all. It was obvious that we were home, yet she hadn’t even knocked on the door. That’s when it finally began to register that something was really wrong.
Just before my daughter was born, I moved back to our old neighborhood too. Surely, two childhood best friends could squeeze in some face time living in the very same neighborhood. But no, her puzzling avoidance and my airtight daily routine conspired to keep us apart.
I clearly remember the details of our conversation when we spoke in the spring after my move. It stands out because it was an upbeat conversation–and a real one, not just a gratuitous check-in. It also stands out because it was our last. She had recently started a new office job, and she really liked the people she worked with. We talked about my kid, just an infant then, and I insisted that Alexis come over to see her. We agreed that she would come for dinner soon but didn’t set a date. About a week later, I noticed her number on the caller ID but she hadn't left a message. That missed call still haunts me, of course.
The following week, after my family went out for Mother’s Day dinner, we gathered at my parents’ house. My mom checked her phone messages and there was one from Alexis’s sister saying she had some sad news. When I called back, her father answered and told me right away that Alexis had died. He asked how much I knew about the problems she’d been having, and I guess that in struggling with my answer I made it obvious that it wasn’t much. He explained that shortly after we’d graduated from high school, Alexis began having troubling symptoms and was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. When it had become too much to bear she took a taxi to Walmart and bought a shotgun, then went to her favorite place in the woods just behind our neighborhood. I wonder what she thought about before ending her life there.
I went to her memorial service pushing my infant daughter in her stroller, hating the irony of the thought I kept having: “So this is how you finally meet my daughter.” I didn’t recognize anyone except her parents and sister. I longed to see someone we had both known, someone I could grab onto and cry, “Can you believe it?!” But instead I stood around awkwardly, at one point viewing the pictures of her on display. They showed the sweet, soulful, endlessly gifted and beautiful little girl I’d met two decades earlier at a kindergarten Thanksgiving party.