The first time I met my best friend Mary Chosa was in Mrs. Stewart’s adviser group. Mary was a freshman and I was a sophomore. With our friend Melanie, we became what my younger sisters not so affectionately coined “The Nerd Herd.” We were all bright, but Mary and Melanie were artists, and I was a writer – even then.
After a few weeks of school, Mary turned fifteen. Melanie and I joined her after school and we all watched Heathers – thus beginning a Christian Slater movie obsession. We were not popular and we didn’t know that we were pretty. We were pretty in the way that all young girls are pretty and maybe even prettier for not knowing it. That summer, Melanie moved away and Mary and I spent pretty much every weekend together.
The winter of my junior year, we went to see Driving Miss Daisy, ’cause that’s the kind of thing girls like us did instead of going to parties. I made a joke that we were the only two people in the theater without a rheumatism. Mary, ever raiser sharp, shot back, “No, YOU’RE the only person in the theater without a rheumatism.”
I didn’t get it. I’d known Mary for a year and a half, and in my teen-fog of self absorbedness to rival Bounty Paper Towels, I hadn’t noticed her disability. Mary had been suffering from juvenile arthritis for years. As the last two years of high school ticked down for me, it became increasingly difficult to ignore. Mary’s immune system was harangued by years of heavy steroid therapy and she was frequently sick. Her talented hands, so steady with pen and ink, began to bend against her will. She was loosing her independence as I was gaining mine.
Through my senior year, I worked full time at McDonalds. I had almost enough credits to graduate as a junior, but I wanted to take AP English and Physics for my transcripts, and I had to get a PE/Health credit (I took CPR). But, I wasn’t in school full time. On my way back and forth from my house to work, I stopped at Mary’s often. We watched Days of our Lives, and I annoyed her because I always forgot who the characters were. She tried, unsuccessfully, to get me to watch 90210 and convince me of the merits of Garth Brooks. I tried to sell her on Simon and Garfunkle. We still agreed on Christian Slater and spent prom night watching Pump of the Volume and eating pints of Ben & Jerry’s.
After high school I moved out with Jim. Mary was still a senior. We talked on the phone and kept in touch, getting together for an occasional movie. I missed her high school graduation because the week she graduated, I was seriously burned at work and couldn’t walk for several days or work for several weeks. Our lives moved forward and apart. I had dropped out of college, but she never started. Her health always seemed to get in her way with surgeries, infections, skin grafts, and more pain than any teenager should ever know.
On the day of my wedding shower, Mary was a no show because she was in the emergency room and later admitted to the hospital. By then she was almost twenty, and in a wheelchair. She decided a couple of months before the wedding that if she couldn’t stand, she didn’t want to be my maid of honor. That hurt, but I accepted it because I had no choice. Who was I to complain, she was the one dealing with a wheelchair. The day of my wedding, Mary was again a no show. This time I was panicked for her, wondering if she was in the hospital again. She was supposed to attend the guest book, something she felt comfortable doing in her wheel chair. I tried to put her out of my mind because I couldn’t bear to think that she was that unwell, and there was nothing I could do.
Turns out she had simply gotten the time wrong. I forgave her because I loved her too much to hold a grudge. But I don’t think she ever forgave herself. It seemed to tear her up and it was always a little weird between us after that. But we were still there for each other when it mattered. When my dad died she was there, and when her step dad died I was there. She was the first person I would call with any fun, sad, or scary news and I was the first person she’d call when she was pissed off or just wanted to gossip. She was the one friend I could trust to be honest with me and love me anyway.
Then, in March of 2000, when we were both twenty-five years old, I had a message on my answering machine. “Amanda, this is Ruth, um Mary’s mom. We’re all at the hospital . . . you really should come.”
I went, and within three days, Mary was gone forever. She had pneumonia, and she’d had enough. She’d had enough of limitations, pain, illness, doctors and hospitals. She was done, and she had the paperwork in order to put an end to it. I knew the last time I saw her would be the last time I’d see her. She lay there with her hair in a little knot on her head, a ventilator breathing for her and chest tubes coming out of her torso. She seemed so little and already so far away from me.
That was the first time I’d ever seen chest tubes, the next time would be four years later coming out of my infant son a ventilator breathed for him. Mary might have told me how that felt, but she left too soon to say. Before I left her, I told her I was sorry I hadn’t been a better friend. I told her I was sorry I’d moved on and away from her. I had so much guilt in my able body, and so much sorrow at my impending loss. I left her room and she followed a few hours later, but she went so much further than I did to get home that day.
She’s been gone almost twelve years now, almost half the life she had. She would have been thirty-seven tomorrow. She would have been an amazing architect. She was an amazing artist. She was hilarious, and sharp, and kind. I named my beautiful little girl Moira (the Gaelic form of Mary) and remember my friend every time my daughter constructs some structure out of her magnaforms or draws an inspired picture. Mary would have liked Moira; they would have understood each other the way Mary understood me. She was my first and last best friend, and I never stop missing her.
Happy birthday Mary Jane Chosa. I hope you’re designing the most amazing buildings in Heaven, but I sure do miss you down here.