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“Anthony, come into the hallway for a minute.” My teacher eyed me, melancholy seeping unnaturally from a face used to calm and composure. It wasn’t because I had run in late from recess, either, because even that heinous crime couldn’t ruffle her. “Diego is sick.” “He…isn’t well.” Every word pulled her lips and eyebrows downward, as if the negative tone of her voice was sucking her facial features past the event horizon of a black hole of dejection. My nine year-old mind was a bit slow on these things, though, and would have just said “she looks sad.”
But said mind of mine made the quicksands of an Everglades bog look like the tiled linoleum of Carlton’s Pizza Mansion, so even that bit of obviousness was taking its time to sink in. “I know that, Ma’am.” My lips were extended in contemplation. “Wasn’t I the one who told you that in the first place?”
It was the joke around the class that Diego shared my brain. I knew about any happening that involved him, even before it happened. I already knew he was going to be out, for instance – as the bus had passed his house that Monday morning, I noticed that the paint-chipped bike he rushed to school every day was still leaning against the garage. My heart dropped a little as I realized this would be nearly the third day in a row I wouldn’t be seeing my best friend, bungeed back up as I realized I’d definitely be seeing him the day after.
There was really nothing, I recalled, that could keep Diego from the Mac & Cheese Special the cafeteria served on Tuesdays: a cold, a nosebleed, a cold and a nosebleed (ouch); the bubonic plague wasn’t making him miss the warm, cheesy, goodness that tomorrow would bring. Plus, it was hard for me not to get excited about utilizing his superior blue cubby for a day. Mine was pink, simply irritating for the run of the mill male fourth grader.
Ms. Jordan was in full-frown by now. “That isn’t what I meant, Anthony. He’s…” She searched the endless lexis of a grown-up for something that would properly penetrate my juvenile ears. She didn’t have much success. “…Sick.” I thought I knew what she meant, though. I was proud of having kept up with recent updates to the vernacular.
“He’s very sick, Ma’am!” Her eyes inflated, one part shock, one part surprise. “Just the other day we were at the park and he had his skateboard and stuff and he got on it and started moving and then he jumped and he flipped and he fell and the skateboard flew like a mile away almost killed this bird or this rabbit or something but it was still so sick I can’t even do it in the Tony Hawk game that’s how hard it is and then later – ” My run-on sentence ended abruptly as I sensed something amiss, almost at the moment her eyes shrunk to normal. The grief remained intact, though, her eyes like a Tupperware bowl trying to hold in an ocean.
“Anthony… he’s very, he’s v-very – ” It finally overflowed as she struggled with herself, unable to meet my gaze. She put her head into her hands and sat on the floor.
“He has cancer, Anthony. Cancer. It…” I stopped hearing what she said. I didn’t need to. I knew what cancer was. My uncle had been diagnosed with lung cancer just a few months before. I saw my mother’s face when she got the call, when she heard that he wouldn’t be able to afford treatment, when she found out she wouldn’t be able to return to Indonesia for the funeral. It was all I saw as I held her in my arms, as her tears soaked into my shirt. I saw her look, and I knew it was now mine. The class had hushed and all focused their eyes on me, but I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t say anything. All I could do was stand there, expressionless, and remember.
I remembered the first time I came across Diego. It was in kindergarten, what felt like ages ago, but the memory resounded in my brain as if it was happening right then. He had taken one of my crayons and I punched him. I missed and he punched back. He missed too. We hadn’t been separated since then. Well, except for that one argument. I remembered that too. I thought Digimon was better than Pokémon and he disagreed. It turned into yelling. We didn’t talk to each other for three days, and then suddenly I bumped him in the hallway and he bumped back and we were best friends again like nothing ever happened. All the good and bad things that had ever ensued between us flashed through my brain as if I was the one dying, not him. I remember falling to my knees and the world falling with me.
I remember him going across the country to get treatment from a big hospital with perky nurses and deep-voiced doctors. I remember screaming at Ms. Jordan, screaming at the principal, screaming at everyone, screaming to know why they let this happen. I remember tripling our phone bill, calling long distance four or five times a day until I was on a first-name basis with the lady who handled calls. I remembered screaming at the small ancestral shrine in our home and screaming to know why it let this happen. I remembered his voice fading away until he couldn’t talk on the phone, until he could only write letters in his silly block handwriting, and even then his weary fingers could barely press the pencil to the paper. I remember screaming as I threw myself against the wall, hoping that the pain outside would drown out the one within, screaming because I didn’t know why I had let this happen. I remembered getting that call I didn’t want to get, I remember not wanting to come out of bed for the rest of my life, I remember going to his burial and wishing I was the one in the coffin, not Diego, the smartest, funniest, greatest kid I’d ever known. I remember breaking down and screaming in the middle of the supermarket, oblivious to shoppers’ stares and my mother’s caress alike.
But I also remembered smiling.
I smiled as a million tall grown-ups read wordy speeches from index cards that Diego would have made fun of, and I smiled as the minister gestured me to say a few words. I needed no index cards, because a few words it was. “Diego was my best friend,” my wavering voice amplified by the clear morning air. I smiled again. “And he always will be.”
I smiled because that was how Diego would have wanted it. I thought of him pulling a Tom Sawyer and popping up and saying “Miss me?”, only to see me with the corners of my lips pulled all the way down, tears streaming down my cheeks. He would have punched me and called me a baby, he would, so I smiled because he lived, not cry because he died. I smiled because there were six billion people in the world and only I got to be best friends with the most awesome kid ever. I smiled for Diego, because I knew he was up there grinning right back.
And I still smile when I think of Diego, nearly seven years later. Like everyone else, I’ve moved on to newer things, “grown up too fast,” as he would have put it, right before a personal demonstration of an atomic wedgie. But on my desk, resting next to a math trophy from 9th grade and my copy of Webster’s Dictionary, I have this little clay man with a lopsided smile and mismatched button eyes. His left arm is gone. Diego took three weeks of his life to make it, a painstakingly crafted labor of love, and when he finished, he handed it to me. Then he ripped that arm off, and as we giggled wildly, he told me that was my fate if I won at Mario again.
Sometimes, I close the textbook. I shut off the TV and the calculator, the computer and the radio. I take off the headphones and I twist the knob on the lamp, sitting for a moment in the darkness. Life pauses and I pick up the little, crippled figure that smiles at me so goofily, and I smile right back. I think about the time he tap-danced for the talent show even though I was the sole cheerer, or how he would call laughter “nature’s Benedryl,” or how he loved giving people “birthday tickles,” whether it was their birthday or not. Then, I look through the window at the night sky, and smile again, thanking it for the best gift anyone could have – Diego’s friendship.