It’s hard for me to write this. Nearly 18 months have passed, and the grief still feels fresh. Almost a year and a half ago, my best friend Amy died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. At the time, she had a 4-week-old daughter, a 2-year-old son, and a partner who was her whole universe for 16 years. She was the middle of three sisters, she was just like her mom, and her dad loved her with every ounce of his being.
And me … she held every secret I had for almost 20 years. She was my college roommate, my maid of honor (and I hers), my conscience, my counselor, and my best friend. She knew my soul like no one other than my husband does, and I believe that I knew hers.
I say she died suddenly, but that’s not true. The embolism struck suddenly, but the next 24 hours were agonizingly slow.
I grew up just north of Dallas, Texas, and Amy still lived there in the Metroplex. Meanwhile, my adult life has been dominated by move after move for my husband’s role in the mission of the U.S. Air Force.
So there we were stationed in Colorado Springs, Colorado; it was a normal Thursday night. I was at Art Night at my oldest son’s school looking at all of the adorable elementary art hung up on the walls. When Amy’s little sister called, I muted her. I thought, I’ll call her on the way home. I wasn’t expecting her to call, but it wasn’t necessarily unusual as she had stayed with us some months earlier while on a jaunt through Colorado; so I figured there was news with a boyfriend or job.
When I called her back, she sounded … still. Closed and calm. She asked me to stop driving because she had bad news. Amy was in the hospital, and it wasn’t good. My mind couldn’t catch up. How bad? An accident or ailment? How bad?
In normal people’s lives, there is a higher probability that they live near their best friend. It’s not a given, but in the military it’s almost a guarantee you won’t live near family most of the time.
I wandered in the house stunned and told my husband. He took the kids to put them to bed while I had to plan. I live 12 hours away. There was no jumping in a car and racing to her hospital bed. With my husband’s job, he couldn’t just take leave and give me the room to run off at a moments notice. So I booked a flight and planned rides and detailed childcare plans for the next day and more long-term. Then I had to pack and plan.
And I missed her.
She was taken off life support while I was on my way to the Denver Airport.
Maybe civilian life isn’t that different. Having kids, civilian or military lifestyle, makes it harder to just jet off. And I know there are plenty of civilian jobs that can’t give you immediate time off in the case of a non-family emergency.
Tragedy can’t be planned for. It’s unfair to put that kind of punishing anger on the Air Force. But that’s my head talking a year and a half later. In the moment, my heart felt a white hot rage at the military life.
I could hear Amy’s voice as we longingly planned for when we would live closer, which we used to do all the time; when my husband would get out; when Texas would be our “forever home.”
My wonderful mother-in-law ended up being the one who sat by her bedside and told her how much I loved her and all the other things I wanted to say. And for a long time that felt like the Air Force’s fault.
Life is unfair sometimes. And blame is a useful mechanism to get through the grief stage of anger. When something tragic happens and you just can’t get there, that feeling of helplessness dwells. I was consumed by all of the times we didn’t have together because we were far away from one another: The baptism that never happened (when she and her husband were going to be my middle son’s godparents) because my husband left for his second tour in Afghanistan; the Thanksgiving we missed seeing each other because there was an ice storm coming, and my husband had to be back for a leadership conference. And on and on.
Time has passed, and I’ve gained a little bit of perspective that helps soothe that animosity. I spoke about it in her eulogy, but it bears repeating here. In the course of my husband’s Air Force career, we have lived in seven homes in four different states. Amy has been in every. single. one. She loved me, so she visited often. She saw my life at every stage. We went out for drinks and mechanical bull-riding in Vegas. She honeymooned in Boston when we were stationed at Hanscom AFB. She ate Mexican food with me on the San Antonio River Walk. And we had a slumber party in a posh hotel in Denver six months before I lost her. She saw the world that the Air Force had carted us to and loved on me and my husband and my children no matter where we were. Being far away from her only magnified how much she loved me and how important our friendship was. We had amazing memories together, thanks in part to the amazing places we got to be stationed.
And even if I had been there and if the Air Force had never been a factor, and I had continued to live close to where we grew up, I couldn’t have stopped what happened to her.
I could have told her that I loved her and that I didn’t want to lose her … but she knew that. She showed me that she knew that with every second we spent together, and more so with all the many more seconds we spent apart. It’s still hard not to be near her kids, her husband, and her family. I guess that will never be easier, that will always be a burden of being military. But I can still dream of a forever home in Texas, and of a day that I can tell her kids about the amazing friend their mother was, that distance never stopped her love.
This is one of my favorite pictures of Amy and I. At the end of my wedding day, tired with an almost empty ballroom, she hugged me and told me she loved me.