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I will refer to her as Kayla because that's what she liked being called. Her given name was Maggie Kayla Strausser. Everybody called her Maggie, except me. I met her 12 years ago at summer camp when we were barely seven years old. The day we met, I immediately showed her what a charming young man I was by pulling her hair and mocking what I thought was a strange name. She had always hated her name. Needless to say, I was not her favorite camp-mate. Oddly enough, Kayla and I became friends, in spite of our first encounter.
Kayla was very plain with a gawky, insecure nature. She was short with a round face and long, stringy brown hair. She wasn't what you would call attractive, if that term can be applied to a seven-year-old. She was not much of a conversationalist, except when she talked to me. We clicked. She would always complain about how she was homely – ugly even. I couldn't help but wonder who was feeding a young girl these thoughts, but I would just laugh it off and tell her that her eyes were beautiful. She'd try to hide her tiny smile, but I knew that it meant something to her.
We grew up together in a small town in northern Wisconsin. The summers were warm and the winters were cold and our playful activities adapted accordingly. There were snowball fights in the winter and tree jumping in summer. In autumn we'd gather leaves and then wrestle in them, while in the spring we picked flowers.
Wintertime was always the best, though. Sledding trips and fireside secret-telling were a blast. She was the kind of best friend who would tell you everything. Her eyes always showed what mood she was in – and they were beautiful.
Our school was small, no more than 22 children in our grade. By the time we were in fifth grade, we had been best friends for four years and began doing big kid stuff. We still did the ice cream trips, except now we went by ourselves. We still hung around at each other's houses (we lived on the same street), except now we could stay out until 8 p.m. instead of 7:30.
Our "graduations" from each grade were truly joyous occasions when we would celebrate our departure from some teachers and lament the loss of others. We were too young for real homework, so we spent most of our after-school time taking exhausting journeys to the drug store to spend what was left of our lunch money on candy. Kayla and I enjoyed our perfect friendship long before the trials and tortures of adolescent boy/girl relationships began to creep into our lives.
By the time we reached high school, Kayla and I were inseparable, not in the romantic sense, but almost as a brother and sister. Of course, for both of us, high school brought truckloads of the opposite sex. I began looking at girls and she started noticing boys in an entirely different light.
Kayla never really did grow out of her gawky stage. I felt horrible when she began to realize that many boys are the cruelest and lowest forms of life on the planet if you're not model-thin. I tried my hardest to work through various growing pains with Kayla. I had some of the same problems she did, but she was more concerned about what everybody was looking at. It's hard to tell an insecure 15-year-old girl that she is pretty. It's even harder to get her to believe you. I would never forget to remind her of those eyes, but I guess there comes a time when hearing it from your best friend just isn't enough.
The summer before our sophomore year was terrific. For my birthday, Kayla did an absolutely precious thing. She made me a box with a sliding lid. On the top were three spaces for pictures. On the left side, she put a baby picture of me and on the right a baby picture of her. In the middle she put a picture of the two of us together taken a few weeks before. In the box were a bunch of pictures of us; some things that we had made together at camp where we met; and a booklet of our favorite quotes, jokes and song lyrics. I wanted to cry, but I didn't because I never do. It was probably the most thoughtful and beautiful gift I had ever received. I promised her that I would keep it forever and add things to it periodically. She hugged me tight. I told her that she was the best friend a guy could have.
Later that week, we were talking on a pair of two-way radios. I was sitting on my sundeck and she was sitting on hers. We could see each other, so we often sat and talked on the radios late at night, so as not to get in trouble with our parents. In my back yard, there is a creek that empties out into a small lake. That night I asked Kayla if she wanted to steal my parents' canoe and row down to the lake. She did, so we took it out of the garage and started down the river at 2:30 a.m.
When we reached the lake, it was totally quiet and we just sat there laughing at stupid jokes and poking fun at our teachers. Kayla decided that it would be hilariously funny if she pushed me overboard. I immediately retaliated with a quick flip of the canoe. As we rowed back home, dripping wet, she made me promise that someday we would go on a canoeing trip in the Adirondack Mountains.
Toward the end of that summer, Kayla met a boy, Allan, at the town park. She told me about how he was nice and had asked her out for coffee. They went and apparently had a great time. I was happy and relieved to know that somebody had begun to take an interest in her. Fortunately for me, she still had enough time to do all the adolescent stuff that had become our routine. She would go out with Allan a few times a week and had a fixed schedule for doing things with him. I was happy that she was finally getting what a sweet person deserved. I had never met him, but he seemed like a pretty good guy. She was content and that was important.
A few weeks after school started, Kayla called me late at night. She sounded upset and said she needed to talk about something. It was late, but I was not very tired. If I said no, it would have been the first time in ten years, so I walked to her house. On my way, I thought about her. I figured the problem was something to do with a boy. The usual "I'm not pretty enough for him" conversations that ended with me trying to convince her of her special qualities were getting to me. I didn't know if I was quite up to it that night. She was already sitting on her deck.
When I saw her face, I knew I was wrong.
She began by telling me she had lied. As I sat there wondering what Kayla could possibly have lied about, she told me that "Allan" was not a real person. All the times that she had said she had been out with him, she had really been at the doctors. Earlier that day Kayla had been diagnosed with leukemia, a form of cancer that is sometimes fatal. I couldn't believe she hadn't told me sooner. A million things raced through my mind. I just stared at her. I slowly drew her into a hug as she sobbed on my shoulder. Though insecure, she was also one of the toughest girls I had ever known. This was the first time I had seen her cry.
Kayla began treatment almost immediately. We tried not to let her illness get in the way of our routine. We would still go to class, out to eat and talk late into the night. Only now our conversations contained an occasional mention of a scary hospital room or a new form of therapy. She slowly began to show signs of being a cancer patient. Her hair became thin and some fell out. She needed more and more sleep. Occasionally, she would experience a loss of appetite. She made constant trips to the hospital and sometimes stayed overnight. Besides this our lives remained pretty much the same – until Kayla entered the hospital permanently.
I tried to visit her as much as I could. The hospital was about a 35-minute drive from our town. I couldn't use the car in the evening, so I took the bus. I had been in hospitals before, but they had never felt like this. Kayla was on the fifth floor with all the other cancer patients. She was in a white nightgown and usually sitting up in bed. I would stay for a while and every day I brought her something. Flowers were a favorite, because we dried them, hanging them all around her room. They were messy but smelled sweet. We played games with the pigeons and named them according to the noises they made.
We would talk and talk about everything. Our first summer camp. Our snowmen that got into a fight over whose nose looked more like a carrot during the winter of 1989. The ducks we chased from our tree house because we feared they would steal our buried treasure.
We cherished those visiting hours.
I finally realized what it was like to miss somebody. This was worse than somebody going on vacation or moving away, because it was a constant string of postponements and cancellations due to unscheduled tests with uncertain results. The worst was knowing the cause was a sickness affecting somebody who was almost family. I had never had a family member this ill and it was horrifying to think of what might happen.
Kayla's condition worsened. She became weak and could not get up or walk the hospital corridor anymore. I still visited her, but the nurses began putting restrictions on us. She slept a lot and was often sleeping when I went to see her. She often wrote me letters and left them for me. I read them and wrote back. Eventually Kayla could only receive visitors for ten minutes. In spite of all of this, I knew she was fighting. She always cracked a smile on her pale, now-thin face. In the few minutes every day I talked to her, she would always joke. I remember her making a comment about how at least she wasn't fat anymore. I laughed and told her jokingly to gain it back, otherwise the weight would be uneven when we finally took our canoe trip.
One evening, I came to her room and she was sleeping. I sat next to her bed and read through the booklet she had given me long ago. Flooded with the memories it held, I began to hear music that accompanied the written lyrics. As I sat there reading, she stirred and I stood over her bed as she looked up at me. I felt her put something in my hand. "Put this in our box," she said with a smile.
I let her fall asleep without looking at what she had given me. I walked to the bus stop and stood there with my hand clenched tightly to the cold, damp pole. When the bus pulled up, I got on and slowly opened my hand. It was Kayla's hospital bracelet.
Kayla left me four days before my seventeenth birthday.
I closed the box she had given me and carried it outside. As I walked out my front door, I became aware of the drizzle, not unlike when we had pretended those were drops of sugar water years ago. I stood there, looking down the street toward her house, where the hand prints in the front sidewalk now seemed so small. I walked to the car that had driven us on high-speed ice-cream man chases and countless playground romps. I placed the box gently on the passenger seat and turned the key. I drove down our street and turned at the stop sign that we had desperately tried to steal for our make-believe parking lot. I drove for a mile and a half until I reached town. I passed our old middle school and the drug store that sold gummy bears by the pound. I pulled into a parking lot, turned off the car and got out. With the box tucked tightly under my arm, I slowly adjusted my tie and walked up to the large brick building. As I entered the funeral home, I walked to the right. At the third door, I came to a sign that said "Maggie Strausser." My heart sank.
As I looked at my Kayla lying there, she appeared to be sleeping. The make-up that attempted to hide her ailments suggested otherwise. Her eyes were closed. I had never not been able to see her eyes before, and I burst into tears for the girl with the beautiful eyes. I cried and cried. I cried for her pain. I cried for her insecurity. I cried for the girl who had never seen a tear well up in my eye her entire life. I slowly bent down to kiss her softly on her thin forehead.
I realized, right then and there, that I loved her because she looked so beautiful.