The day we found out, we spent the morning at Molly’s house. It was the middle of August, nearing the end of summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, and a small group of my friends from high school and I were trying to squeeze in as much time together as we could before we all went back to school. That morning, there were only five of us—it was too early for Julie to be awake, and Nicki was away with her family somewhere. But Lindsay, Maddie, Molly, Jenna, and I were awake and around, and therefore we were with each other.
I sort of broke the news to everyone, though I didn’t realize it until later.
We sat around the kitchen table, and I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed on my phone. One of the local newspaper pages that I like posted a link to their latest article, and I would have scrolled right past it if I hadn’t seen the word “Montvale.” We went to high school in Montvale; half of us lived there. I clicked the link and read the headline out loud to my friends: Woman Hit By Train in Montvale.
There was a moment’s silence; Maddie quietly said, “That sucks.”
Molly asked, “Do they know who it was?” at the same time Lindsay said, “Was it a suicide?”
I told them both I didn’t know—the article had almost no details beyond the headline. “But it probably was a suicide.” It didn’t happen often, but every few years someone would jump in front of a train near us. It was always huge news, because we lived in a very wealthy, very safe suburb, and there never was any other news.
“Didn’t Dallas’s uncle jump in front of a train a few years ago?”
Dallas was a boy some of us had gone to elementary school with, eons and eons ago. None of us had kept in touch with him after he moved a few towns over in the fifth grade, but we shared mutual friends and we remembered the name.
None of us knew Dallas’s uncle but we still felt weird about the connection, however tenuous, we each had to something so tragic.
Someone let out a long sigh, and we let it hang there for a few more moments before one of us finally broke the silence. “I’m so glad I don’t take the train to work anymore.”
Later that day I was at home putting on makeup. Everyone else, minus Nicki and Lindsay (who had gone to work after leaving Molly’s) was at Maddie’s house. As I painted on my face I thought about taking a quick nap before I drove over to Maddie’s, though I was interrupted from my reverie when my phone started buzzing on my desk. It was Lindsay.
“Why are you calling me when you’re at work?” I greeted her.
There was hardly a pause. “Sarah, it was Kennedy.”
I thought about this for a second. And another. And another. And then I thought about the news I had broken for everyone earlier in the morning. “No, it wasn’t, idiot,” I finally said, maintaining my typical intelligence and composure in the face of great tragedy.
Lindsay let out a deep breath. “Sarah, it was Kennedy.”
It’s funny how thoroughly our experiences shape our understanding. To you, it might sound like we were talking about JFK, or Robert, or any other member of the grand political family. To us, it meant something entirely different.
Have I forgotten to tell you about Kennedy?
Maybe that’s because we all kind of forgot about her, too.
In tarot, there’s this card called the Mother of Pentacles. It’s representative of someone who is loving, domestic, and patient; someone who excels in the home and in keeping organized; someone who usually does their best work behind the scenes and who does not require much recognition. That was Kennedy, our Kennedy—she was sweet (when she wanted to be) and shy (occasionally to a fault) and sometimes stubborn. Stubborn in a good way, though—it was something I admired about her, her single-mindedness when it came to getting what she wanted.
I don’t remember the first time I met her, though it must have been a little more than six years ago now. We went to high school together, and we were friends. I wish there was a more eloquent way to put it than that, I wish there was a better story I could tell—but that’s how it was. We didn’t really become friends; we just were friends, from the first time we hung out until the day she died.
She had long, wavy brown hair, and she wore glasses with oval frames that perfectly shaped her face. She was so fucking funny, but she was never mean—nothing she said ever had a real hint of malice to it. She was never overemotional; she seemed uneasy around grand displays of sentimentality, and was as uncomfortable as I was when we had to go to theater productions or choir concerts to support our friends. We bonded over our mutual love for Avatar: The Last Airbender (the TV show, obviously—she’d probably send down a lightning bolt if I let you believe for a second she enjoyed any moment of that movie); she once bought me a giant stuffed monkey holding a heart for Valentine’s Day.
I could fill pages and pages with those little things about her and you’d still never get a full picture of who she was. I don’t think I will ever be able to do her justice.
The most important thing is that she was nice. She was so nice—and I know that’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, so I hope it can truly retain its meaning here. Even before she died, no one had a bad word to say about her—and that’s including the kid whose ankle she broke during a particularly intense game of soccer when she was in her middle school gym class. “I was scared of her when she was coming at me,” he told us later, “Like, I couldn’t believe the look in her eyes. But I honestly couldn’t even be mad at her for a second. First of all I sort of had it coming,” (he had been aggressively blocking her the whole game), “but mostly she was just so genuinely sorry about the whole thing. You couldn’t be mad at Kennedy.”
And we still can’t.
Early on the morning of August 15th—before the sun rose at 5:06—Kennedy left her house for the last time. She got into her brown, boxy Jeep and drove to Huff Park, where she left her car unlocked. Inside were binders with notes for her mom, her dad, and her sister. She also left—and this is so Kennedy I can hardly begin to tell you—little packets for each of them on how to deal with grief, on how to survive after someone you love commits suicide.
And then she walked. It wasn’t a particularly long walk to the train tracks, but she must have had time to watch the sunrise. I wonder if she noticed. I wonder if she cared.
She didn’t do it at the train station, which was also, in a strange way, so characteristic of her—the station is in the center of town, and it would have attracted so much attention, and anyone could have seen the whole thing happen. She put a lot of thought into it. She chose a spot where you couldn’t get to without walking. She chose a time when people weren’t likely to be outside.
And a little bit before 5:30 in the morning, when she heard the train coming, she lay down on the tracks.
Saying we’d forgotten about her sounds a little harsh, and maybe it is. But here’s what is true: the last time any of us saw her was at a party at Lindsay’s house in the beginning of the summer, either late May or early June. It was pouring outside, and it wasn’t even a particularly warm rain; I left the party without saying goodbye (why would I say goodbye to all these people who I’m going to see again the next day?), and when I got back to my car I felt the chill of the rain down to my bones.
After that, we invited her hang out with us a few more times. But she stopped responding.
So we stopped with the invitations.
We had excuses already prepared. She’s busy. She doesn’t feel well. Isn’t her family in town? These explanations served two functions: they allowed us to not take her rejections personally, and they proved a convenient way of hiding the real reason, or reasons, that she was no longer interested in spending time with us. We knew she was depressed—which is to say she had depression—and that she wouldn’t have come over even if we sent her a million messages a day.
The last time I invited her somewhere was the beginning of June. Kennedy and I were both huge fans of How to Train Your Dragon, and the sequel was to be released in mid-June. “AMC is having a double feature the day it comes out,” I wrote. “They’re showing the first movie and then the new one, back-to-back. You game?”
She never responded, and I didn’t send a follow-up. I thought, If she doesn’t feel well enough to hang out with us, that’s okay. She knows we’re here if she wants us. And we’ll be here when she’s feeling better. And then I saw the double feature with Jenna and Lindsay.
On one hand, of course we don’t blame ourselves. We know, logically, that the texts we didn’t send are not the reason Kennedy is dead.
But—there is always a but.
It wasn’t our fault.
But sometimes it feels like it was.
I think about her final moments a lot and something about them seems particularly significant. It’s not the method that strikes me—Ken was never an idiot; she was not going to half-ass this, and getting hit by a train is generally a surefire way to go out. So no—it’s not the method that I think of. It’s the difference between lying down in front of a train and jumping in front of one. There’s a sort of quiet dignity in the specifics of it, a soft sort of bravery to it. The difference between action and inaction. The difference between waiting and welcoming. I don’t know if the decision to jump or not to jump ever crossed her mind but I think about it all the time.
There’s a poet, Richard Siken, who published a collection called Crush a few years back that I keep in the drawer next to my bed and that I highlighted and notated furiously when I was a freshman in high school. His poems are raw and urgent and—and to be honest I feel I have no legs to stand on when it comes to the discussion of poetry, but suffice to say I have always found them very powerful. I once read an interview with him in which he was asked, essentially, how he can write emotional poems without letting the emotion of the poem overtake the whole thing. His answer was characteristically beautiful, but it also served to answer another inquiry commonly asked of him: Why, Mr. Siken, do you include absurd, “irrelevant,” and even humorous scenes in your poems about the deepest and most profound grief?
His answer has never quite left me: “Things happen,” he said, “one after another, world without end. Just because you’re self-aware doesn’t mean you can change what’s happening… Eventually something you love is going to be taken away. And then you will fall to the floor crying. And then, however much later, it is finally happening to you: you’re falling to the floor crying thinking, ‘I am falling to the floor crying,’ but there’s an element of the ridiculous to it—you knew it would happen, and, even worse, while you’re on the floor crying you look at the place where the wall meets the floor and you realize you didn’t paint it very well…”
Isn’t there always an element of the ridiculous to our grief?
In the fourth episode of Bob’s Burgers, after thirteen-year-old Tina wails, “Jordan Sterman moved away, and now I’ll never play kickball with him again,” her younger sister Louise offers the following advice: “Oh, you should kill yourself.”
The first time I watched that episode was long before this happened, and I’ve spent a long time thinking about why I found that joke so funny. To be honest I haven’t come up with much. I mean, there’s the obvious—it’s an exaggerated response to what is objectively not a huge deal, blah blah blah (doesn’t explaining a joke make it so much better?)—but I don’t know why it made me, specifically, laugh so hard it made the friends watching the episode with me uncomfortable. I just think that kind of thing, the darkness of it, is really, really funny.
Which probably explains why I said what I said to Nicki.
We all organized a memorial for Kennedy. We didn’t have much time before everyone went back to school, so we had to do it kind of quickly. Two nights after she died, everyone was over at my house, planning. Julie was going to make a video montage; Jenna was going to get candles donated; I was going to write some—well, not quite speeches—little reminders of what needed to be said. That was as far as we had gotten when Julie asked if we should get Alyssa, a girl we went to high school with, to sing a song.
There were a few of us on the couch, all curled up next to each other. I was leaning on Nicki’s shoulder when I whispered it to her without thinking, the kind of thing I said—and admittedly still say—all the time: “Uh, Kennedy would rather kill herself than have Alyssa sing.”
She was silent. No one else heard, and their conversation continued on around us; I waited for the punch to the face that Nicki rightfully owed me.
And then she laughed.
And then I laughed.
And we laughed so hard our friends took note and stopped talking.
“What’s so funny?” Julie asked, a little impatiently. She had every right to be mad, of course, but Nicki and I couldn’t quite take her seriously. We laughed even harder. It felt like the most gorgeous, glorious relief, to be able to laugh like that. To be able to laugh like that while knowing that Kennedy was dead and wasn’t coming back. To know I could still be capable of laughter even with that fact burned into my brain.
“Do you remember that time,” Lindsay said suddenly, “that Jenna and Kennedy went to that bakery in Ridgewood, and then Jenna got lost on a dark highway on the way home and couldn’t stop nervous farting? And then Kennedy called Sarah and put the phone on speaker so she could hear the whole thing?”
And then we all laughed.
And we kept sharing stories.
We were—and still are—a tight-knit group of friends. That’s not to say we talk every day, or even every week, but when we’re home, it’s almost like we’ve never left. Of course, that sounds a little ridiculous, because much of what we talk about is college: Nicki tells us her ridiculous tales of life in Manhattan, Molly regales us with sorority stories at which Lindsay and Jenna and I roll our eyes, Julie asks us why we let her become a math major, Maddie shows us pictures of the mountains in Boulder, Colorado. But it’s the familiarity and the closeness that haven’t changed, not the topics of discussion.
It’s the way I can still show up at Molly’s uninvited and punch in the garage code only to have Molly find me on the couch watching TV with her mom and sister when she gets home a few hours later. It’s the way the doorbell rings at midnight and my dogs start barking like crazy and wake up my mom and I can’t even be mad at Maddie and Nicki, who are both standing outside waiting for me to open the door. It’s the way that, whenever Lindsay comes over, she brings me an iced tea from Dunkin just the way I like it (large, unsweetened, with lemon). And it’s the way that we all know something is missing now, even if we don’t always bring it up. It’s the way we share this loss and the way we rely on each other.
This has been so hard for all of us. Sometimes it still feels impossible. Sometimes I still fuck up. For example: Kennedy loved watermelon-flavored Jolly Rancher Chews. I hated them. So when I’d buy and eat bags of Chews in bulk—which honestly happened more than I’d care to admit—I’d save the pink ones for her, put them in a plastic bag and give them to her the next time I saw her. Early in the semester, my mom sent me a care package with a bag of Chews in them. When I opened them up, I started piling the pink ones on my desk—for her, of course. It would be so funny, I remember thinking, if I filled a box with these and sent them to Kennedy without a note. It took me a few minutes to realize my mistake.
For example: On Christmas morning, four months after she died, my mom, my sister, and I went to Kennedy’s house for breakfast. When we arrived, the three of us sat down on a couch in the living room, and my mom and sister started making conversation with one of Kennedy’s mom’s friends. I started to feel impatient, but couldn’t quite put my finger on why—until I realized that I was waiting for Kennedy to come downstairs and hang out with me.
There are slip-ups like this all the time.
As that night wore on, the night we sat in my house and planned the memorial, we became something approaching giddy. Someone made brownies—it might have been me—and we ate them out of the pan with forks.
In those two days after Kennedy died, I heard from friends I hadn’t spoken to in months, I saw strangers coming together to comfort each other, I spent so much time with the ones I love. In those two days I was reminded of some of the funniest, most irreverent, most ridiculous, and greatest times I have ever had. In those two days I experienced the deepest and most profound intimacy of my life.
All of this is to say: when I think about Kennedy, about how she is dead (I hate when people say that she “passed”—that feels too sanitized, too easy to say), I feel an incurable sense of loss. But I also think about sitting around that kitchen table, laughing with my best friends. We were exhausted in every sense of the word, physically and emotionally drained from the longest days of our lives. But there we were, surrounded by the people we loved most in the world, eating brownies and laughing.
And I know she would have laughed, too.