I first met JoAnne when her sister started dating my brother. We were both around 14. She visited our house for supper one night and my anxiety spiked. Her family seemed rich, educated, proper, not at all how I perceived my own family. What would she think of us?
My Dad liked her right away. It was obvious to me because he teased her and he liked that she could tease in return.
For dessert that night my Mom served fresh buns with butter and raspberry jam; during the table conversation I glanced over and noticed her scrutinizing her bun. There was a dark spot on it. I looked more closely. What IS that? Then, with horror, I recognized the black smear: a fly! A dead fly in her jam! Mortified, I went mute. Eventually, she lifted it up with her spoon, a confused look on her face and said, "Is this...?" My eyes lowered, I could not imagine what would happen next. Finally JoAnne said, "Oh my God. IT'S A FLY."
I looked at my Mom. I looked around the table. Eventually, I made eye contact with JoAnne and then she laughed. And so did we, until our eyes watered. Finally, wiping away tears, she removed the fly, picked up her bun, shrugged her shoulders and took another bite. I sort of fell in love with her. Not a teen boy crush thing but something else, something better, something genuine when so much of our teen days were about bullshitting each other to elevate ourselves on some imaginary cool scale. It was the beginning of an unforgettable friendship.
JoAnne was determined to become a doctor. Close to six feet tall, she had blue eyes and short brown hair. Small scars dotted her arms where she scratched her childhood mosquito bites. She had long fingers, beautiful, womanly hands. She was heavy and thick-waisted and loved bright clothing. She liked to cook and eat chips and dip and read romance novels and dogear the sex scenes; she liked to dance and swim and play pranks and was known to flash her boobs unexpectedly. She liked men more than anything, the kind of men that did not seem to pay attention to her. She liked to get her hair done and wear dresses and do her nails, yet she wasn't at all precious. She loved to dance and sing along, loudly. She owned a cap that said, "I'm fat but you're ugly and I can diet." She loved movies, especially scary ones but she herself was a comedy. She laughed. All. The. Time. And everyone laughed with her. JoAnne could quickly make others laugh, feel at ease, feel appreciated, feel included. Over the next seven years, I discovered that she struggled to feel that herself.
JoAnne died the night of her 21st birthday. She was so young. I've lived more than twice her life now. One could say she barely lived at all, but the truth is that she grabbed life by the shirt most days.
On a bitterly cold February night, we picked her up at her little apartment and drove to an all-you-can-eat restaurant we frequented due to our ever-depleted bank accounts. It was at least -40, the powdered snow squeaked beneath our boots. Christmas had gone well. She was in therapy. She said she felt less stress, that she had more energy. Unlike us, she was taking fewer university classes. We knew she was somehow more fragile now, yet that night felt like old times. We ate heaps of ice cream. Someone snuck a giant block of cheese from the buffet into her purse. We laughed. We enjoyed each other. We brought her to our apartment to play cards, and watch videos, and laugh some more. We forgot.
We were so young.
It was late, and terribly cold that night. Jo-Anne wanted to go home. Some of us had early classes the next day. None of us wanted to drive, so I asked if she could take a cab? She stared at the floor, nodded and then put on her long grey coat. I should have driven her home; this decision will always be my weightiest regret, its gravity always pulls. I forgot.
I stood with her at the back door while she waited for the cab. Her purple toque, her dark blue mitts, she stared out the window. (I am standing with her now.) I think there were tears in her eyes; I didn't understand why. We had so much fun that night. We looked at each other one last time and I said, "See you later."
As the saying goes, "we are all just walking each other home."
Why didn't she stay overnight? I felt guilty and I didn't want to feel that so I felt angry instead. I forgot.
That night she took all her anti-depressants. Why was she given so many? Had she been hoarding them? Later we learned that she regretted taking the pills, and called her parents. They lived three hours away so she drove herself to the hospital. She brought her prescription bottle with her. I bet she explained to the admitting staff what she had done in the medical terms she was learning in university. And then somehow, everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and she was dead before sunrise.
Sometimes we don't understand until we do understand, and it's too late.
I miss her.
I forgot. Almost two decades later, I heard The Fray's song How to Save a Life for the first time and wept like I was still 21 riding a greyhound bus home after a funeral: "I would have stayed up with you all night had I known how to save a life."
JoAnne's death was preventable. Even she wanted to save it. But we forgot. We were so young. I have learned the adage, "I didn't cause it, I can't control it, I can't cure it," yet I will continue to carry it and wonder.
Check in with the young people in your lives, anyone really. Talk. Listen. Above all: remember. And if you are the one hurting, reach out for help. JoAnne taught me that when there's a fly in the jam we might think the whole jar is wasted, but it's not. Like me, I think she forgot.