Guest Writer – Winds of Change

by Tracie Crenshaw, Lake Michigan College Creative Writing Student

Katie used to tell me I worry too much. Her soft voice, like a ballad, belting out, “Worry won’t fix nothin’.” – using double negatives to teasingly and distractingly get under my skin. Not much phased her. I think back to the first time we met.

The first day of fifth grade brought a late summer storm, drenching children dashing for the doors. The muggy, fresh scent of rain permeated the sky. Puddles collected in crevices on the sidewalk to Hoover Elementary, tempting me to lollop and splash through its muck. The first day produced more than yellow raincoats, Nickelodeon-themed umbrellas, and disgruntled classmates. A new girl emerged in the classroom, removing her red parka to reveal a sky-blue T-shirt and stonewashed jeans. All heads rotated to her like programmed robots, systemically shifting the class view. 

I instantly imagined her trepidation. I worried for her – being the center of attention was my worst nightmare. The scrutinizing stares from bullies like Steve and fashionistas like Tonya. Must she be feeling the hands of suffocation around her throat, between the stale air and speculating whispers? But – no – she strolled in, the epitome of confidence. She scooted into the stiff orange chair, placed a notebook on the ancient cedar desk, folded her hands and smiled at me – a bold, amiable beam. Either she was truly oblivious to the classroom vibe or it didn’t bother her one beat.

We fused into best friends that year, but I had to compete with my classmates. Despite the unwelcoming gazes of the first day, friendships with new students were coveted. Established students pounced on new ones like they were fresh meat. However, my connection with Katie — our shared love of roller-skating and Ghostwriter — earned me the best friend badge. When we discovered we lived around the block from each other, it sealed the deal.

Looking back, I speculate what the appeal was with the “new kid”. Katie was average-looking, like me, and had mousy brown hair cut into a short bob. Plastic-framed glasses cemented on her round nose and brown hooded eyes. In those days, glasses symbolized a level of “un-coolness” and prompted teasing or bullying, yet the intrigue of a new girl vetoed any eyeglass stigmas. She wore solid-colored clothes in an era of colorful neon geometrical patterns.

During a short-lived “Let’s be twins” phase, we agreed to wear matching outfits one day.

“Let’s ride our bikes to Fashion Bug and find new outfits,” I offered as we discussed our plans on the phone. I had stretched the phone cord to its capacity, through the hallway and into my room. Childhood conversations were classified; siblings and parents didn’t hold security clearance to listen.

“Why don’t we use clothes we already have?” She insisted on black jeans, a white shirt and a red sweater. “It’s easy and convenient.”

She was my first best friend – I would have worn a trash bag if she’d wanted. I could sacrifice new clothes in the name of friendship.

Our end results brought dissonance. We clashed rather than matched. My faded jeans more gray than black, the white shirt an oversized button-down borrowed from my dad. And the discolored shade of red on my old sweater appeared orange. I was humiliated when I saw her clothes were vivid tones contrasting my drab ones.  

“I look like an idiot,” I grumbled. “This is why I wanted to go shopping. What if I’m made fun of?”

She lazily looped an arm over my shoulders. “Who cares what anyone thinks? Worry won’t fix nothin’.”

By the time we’re adults, we tend to carry two images of childhood friends in our heads. One, a still frame – a snapshot of them as a kid, frozen in our memory banks. The other, an adult version – the metamorphism of the child into their present self. The second dominates our brains, but that childhood version still emerges from time to time.

When the world lost Katie to a persistent, rare brain tumor two months ago, both versions of her started to exist simultaneously for me. Losing her seemed to unite all her memories within my mind. She’s all of them at once. She’s the sassy twelve-year old with untamed short hair and plastic frames. She’s the sixteen-year-old, finally allowed contact lenses, with grunge clothing and brown lipstick typical of the 90’s. She’s the young adult, with her thick brown hair straightened, a smirk on her face, and a determination to see the world. And she’s the pale, bald cancer patient, hobbling because chemo damaged her hips – yet refusing to allow it to keep her down.

We shared all of the trials, hardships, growing pains, laughter, hopes and dreams of childhood. Times of innocence, and times not so innocent. After the transition into adulthood, she rented a house and asked me to be her roommate. This decision would change the course of our friendship.

I gleefully unpacked my few possessions in a tiny, cream-colored house in a suburb of Detroit. My room directly across from hers revealed blue walls and a double bed. We shared a kitchen, black and white themed, barely big enough to squeeze by each other. The two-seater in the living room didn’t allow enough space for me to sit and watch TV with her when her boyfriend, Chris, stayed all week. Only three chairs fit around the compact metal dining table. After a week, one of them became a plant stand. Where would I sit? I mused. Chris spent weekends working in Cleveland – then there’d be room for me.

But then, Saturday emerged along with Katie’s ex-boyfriend, Jason from high school. His tall, dark mood contrasted with the chipper disposition of her other boyfriend. They existed in parallel universes -neither of them aware of the other.

I accidentally unearthed other secrets she harbored – not that she buried them deeply. A porn collection. Unopened mail from Planned Parenthood tossed in the trash. A third online boyfriend – Brian. I started to believe I no longer knew Katie.

Days into being roommates, I felt more a person she tolerated existing in her house than her friend. Her behavior, rude and hurtful, confused me. Friendly banter shifted to accusations of betrayal. She mutated from my best friend to a wicked witch, throwing venomous comments at me around every corner. Was Katie developing into a person I didn’t like? Who didn’t like me?  

One day, a sheet of notebook paper manifested on my bedroom door. I inspected the hand-written list of rules she’d created for me to abide. Use of internet discontinued. (Did she somehow know I’d learned of Brian?) No boys allowed. (The joke was on her – I had no interest in boys.) The ridiculousness of the rules increased the more I read. I couldn’t cook food? Shower on weekends?

The straw that broke the camel’s back: self-preservation took over. I left, not looking back.  

Years passed, as they do, and my new life in Texas consumed me. My old life received little thought as I plunged into the next chapters, until one day, her sister Jen posted something on Facebook that prompted me to ask about Katie. Jen responded: “She says to call her.”

“Tracie!” Katie answered breathlessly on the first ring.  The tone of her voice conveyed to me the last version of her that I knew had disappeared. I immediately knew my friend was back. And what she told me reshaped my view of her during the time we had lived together. Brain cancer – more specifically, a rare type of glioblastoma. The original tumor had been removed, she was enthusiastically telling me, as if she had been talking about removing lumps from cake batter.  

Her tone shifted. “I was awful to you. So awful. Brain tumors can change your personality, and I had no idea what I was like until after it was removed.” She continued to tell me how she called the tumor “Janice” or “That bitch Janice” – naming it gave her power over it.  I was relieved cancer hadn’t exterminated her sense of humor and positive outlook.

Unfortunately, this type of tumor is the most aggressive, and she said they always come back. The treatment involves slowing the growth.

We picked back up like no time was lost. I saw her over the years after I moved back to Michigan. She appeared in decent health, lively, chatty, moving around fine. The last time I physically saw her, her frail figure walked with a limp as she optimistically explained that chemotherapy had damaged her hips but also destroyed cancer cells. She was still in good spirits.

Because of these good spirits and perhaps her delusions about the severity of her illness (the cancer devoured a large portion of her brain), I didn’t know she was declining until I texted Jen the beginning of last year. Katie had stopped replying to my texts and worry consumed me.

“She is not well,” Jen told me. “She is no longer able to text.” My eyes finally opened to just how serious the cancer was; just how much she was declining.

I lamented that I should have moved close to Katie when I returned to Michigan – to be more physically present in her life.

“You can’t plan for other people, love. You gotta live your life and fulfill YOUR spiritual obligations. She would be so pissed if she knew you weren’t doing right by you.” Of course, Jen was right. Katie would have been pissed.

From that point on, any updates on Katie were delivered by Jen, via Facebook Messenger.

  • April 21, 2021. “She’s living in 15 years ago.”
  • August 19, 2021: “She’s no longer Katie. She has no phone anymore. She can’t operate it.”
  • September 10, 2021. Katie’s birthday. “She has no idea who she is, no idea what a birthday is, no idea it’s her birthday. She has no idea who I am.”
  • November 4, 2021. “I just wanted to let you know they decided to stop treatment. Chemo and all appointments are done as of today. No more blood work, nothing.”
  • December 18, 2021. “Katie passed away tonight.”

I should have done more. I should have tried to see her more. I should have told her how much her friendship meant to me. “Should haves” plagued my thoughts while the fused images of her appeared in my mind. The sassy twelve-year old with wild mushroom-shaped hair and purple glasses. The cheerfully rebellious teenager – bangs curled over her eyebrows; rosy cheeks and bold statements. The 35-year-old woman – hair grown out after her last chemo rounds, moving slowly, limping, yet radiantly smiling. I never personally witnessed her decline. I should have, for I have no image representing the last part of her life. But, in a way, I’m relieved my memories of her are when she was living, not dying.

I am standing at the shore of Lake Michigan. The winter gales surround me, chewing on my cheeks, slicing my skin. The waves in front of me greet me with gentle nods. They understand transition. Their very existences are mere moments. A wave forms, reaches its peak, and merges back into the sea. Its life is just a flash, and it’s over.

I take one last look at the water, clouds forming at the horizon – flat, purple and orange shadows in the low sky. Tears sting my eyes, their salty warmth penetrating the numb cold of my skin.         “Fly high, old friend.”

*The Buchanan Chronicle wishes to provide a venue for guest writers to be showcased. We may edit but only for typos, language, or length; as we desire to present submissions as received.*

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