We stare out at the football game, a split pack of Skittles resting on the frigid bleachers between us. I run my fingers along the ridges that are divided into two stripes. We both share this lonely air and take shallow, sparing breaths.
I am a companion, but I am not Ashleigh.
I want to tell her that I know she is hurting. I can see it in her quiet pauses and how she looks at my car when I’m not around. I didn’t choose to drive the same car as a dead girl. It just sort of happened.
I knew Ashleigh from childhood, but from a distance. Through mutual friends and community events, she had always been a star in my solar system. When I showed up to my junior year of high school at my brand new school, I was afraid to even walk in the hallways. I had never seen so many kids in such small clouded vessels, all like red blood cells trying to pump their way around. I didn’t know where a single classroom was and couldn’t tell you the difference between the math wing and the bathroom. Ashleigh was the only person to say hello to me that day. And every day after that.
Even a blind man could see that she was an angel in blue jeans. You didn’t have to be her best friend to earn her attention and affection. You just had to meet her eyes once, and then suddenly you were wrapped into a conversation with her. She was simple. Sweet, pretty, intelligent, soft. I guess that’s why “God’s Plan” didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t fathom the idea that she was simply a pawn in some demented chess game that meant nothing. I couldn’t dismiss her impact as a mere watermark on an otherwise smooth piece of paper.
I kept thinking that she was going to wake up. I quickly learned that you can’t wake up from “brain dead”. My mom came running into my work that July afternoon. I always know when she is going to tell me bad news because her voice drops into a cadence that is eerily slow and dances around the issue with fifty disclaimers before revealing the truth. She asked me if it was the same girl who I knew from my classes. I said yes, and that Ashleigh had been into the coffee shop only a few days before.
I remember making her latte that day, her slender frame breaking up the wall of windows behind her. She looked as peaceful and kind as ever, a sort of living beauty that shone underneath her pale skin and dark, sleek hair. A steadfast, unrelenting vibrancy that never seemed to change in her spirit. The type of beauty you just don’t see every day.
In a few moments, I was back. I was watching my mother and trying to figure out what I was feeling. I finished the rest of my shift in a haze and found my way back home, not sure how I handled a wheel.
I immediately got into the shower in order to avoid any breakdowns in front of my family and turned the water up as hot as it could go. I had never felt that fuming desire to be burned so badly. I wanted to hurt, and for some reason, I wasn’t mentally tapped into that feeling yet. I wanted to dissolve into each droplet and slither down into the drain, never having to deal with the pain that I knew was coming.
There is nothing to prepare you for experiencing the death of a friend, especially when you are a young person and on the cusp of a bright future that awaits you. Family members are supposed to fade like old installations of television series. It does not make the ordeal any less tragic, but we expect it. You choose your friends. You choose who to put yourself around. When you are young, these people come in small waves and groups of cold currents. Losing Ashleigh felt like a tsunami whose force I was drowning under. I felt that water weighing down my gut and filling my lungs.
No seventeen-year-old girl needs to die. There was no logic, no sense, and no reason for her death. That is what hurts the most. Humans seek to explain the unexplainable, and no matter how many ways the “bigger plan” dialogue has been spun, I simply do not believe it. I think it is a feeble and desperate attempt to cope. I think it is the only way some people know how to cope or even grasp the situation, though. I guess everyone deflects tragedy in some way or another.
Every week that went by after that first week in July felt hazey and like I was lacking something. Rejoicing in even the smallest victories felt selfish. I couldn’t think of a single reason why she had to die when there are so many other people who probably deserved it more. I know it’s a terrible thought. This idea of ranking kids on who deserves to go first, but I felt so betrayed by whatever force was running this ‘show’ that I spent my time thinking about all the different people who have done worse things or have been worse people. Even I probably deserved it more. Why her?
That first day of senior year in August felt empty. There was no flickering excitement of embarking on my last year of high school, no jitters, no desire to see anyone. I knew that walking in those hallways, only a year later, would be an entirely different feeling. I was no longer scared of the packed walkways. I wasn’t obsessed with creating a social life with people who were no good for me. I wasn’t worried about fitting in. I was more comfortable in my environment, and to that I almost completely owe Ashleigh. Had I not had a friendly face on that first day to guide me to my classes, I simply would not be where I am. Ashleigh was more than a class friend and friendly stranger. She taught me that no act of kindness was ever small.
I saw the way she interacted with life: an eagerness that was unmatched by any of her peers. I used to tease her about the fifty-six fancy colored pens that she took notes with in class. Each color had a purpose and a meaning. That desire for assigning meaning to life stretched beyond obsessively color coding. A word never fell out of her thin mouth that wasn’t thought carefully through. Ashleigh was the definition of pure intention.
To her, she was probably just reuniting with an old friend on that first day of junior year. To me, she was an absolute saint that made my life feel a little less scary. She read my online articles, supported my writing projects, and always asked about how my health was doing. She was this distant, yet wholly relevant, spirit in my classes and my life. Without her, this year has felt dismal and empty.
I befriended her best friend the same way I befriended her. Through classes and common interests, I found myself wound back up with Ashleigh through her closest friends. Her name rings like God’s name in a Christian household. It is shocking and disturbing for a moment, but it is followed by the adoration and love that drips from every memory that is spoken. She is nothing short of angel-status in her old community, and that imagery will never fade.
When Ashleigh died, I refused to allow myself to mourn. I kept telling myself that there were so many other people close to her that were hurting, that I somehow didn’t have a right to grieve. Because I wasn’t her best friend, I couldn’t address the cracks in my heart. I couldn’t love her. I couldn’t miss her.
That’s precisely what Ashleigh’s character fought for: the equality of love. She managed to take the most valuable form of human currency and democratize it for everyone. She made the most discussed, fought after, romanticized emotion feel like the simplest thing in the world. That’s not to say certain people in her life didn’t receive more than others, but she seemed to give out love like tulips from an inner orchard in her heart that never saw winter. Ashleigh taught me that true love for others and for life is grown. It is planted, taken care of, and given light. Once that inner love blooms, it is only right to share that beauty with others.
I long to be more delicate like her. More kind and open and so authentically alive. I am always hiding behind personas, but she, no matter what she was going through, met every day with the same vibrancy and passion that could stun a crowd. I am trying to live more like Ashleigh. I think my entire community is.
They read one of her diary entries at her funeral. She wrote about never forgetting to say your “I love yous.” I guess it is my turn to say it now.
I love you, Ashleigh. We all do.
Like your love orchard, our love and memories of you will remain in our hearts forever, neatly protected by a small white picket fence. New tulips will appear with every sight of that same silver car you used to drive, and every stranger with long, brown hair that we see from behind. We will cultivate our gardens with the love you have cast upon us, and can only hope that we give as much as you did with the time we have left.
You are unforgotten. You will flourish eternally.
Cheyenne Mountain High School
Colorado Springs, CO 80906
Awards: Personal Essay & Memoir
Silver Medal, 2020