Saying Goodbye: A Lesson Learned From a Young Death

fullTwo days ago was kind of like a high school reunion, except it was, well, depressing.

A friend of mine died of cancer about a week ago. Her funeral took place at a venue in Alhambra followed by the burial at Rose Hills. Let me tell you, that was… surreal.

It’s not that I feel that the people around me are always incredibly blessed and lucky to dodge death, because trust me, I’ve lost some pretty good people in my life. I just never thought I’d ever be one to say, “Yes, I know someone who died of cancer,” and then be at her funeral six years after high school. I truly expected her to survive.

And this person isn’t some great aunt in the Philippines whose name I’ve heard in passing. It’s someone whose name I could directly match with a face. It’s a face with a voice I can quickly point out if a tape recorder went off. It’s a voice that’s tied in with years of memories that I can recall.

Just being at that funeral, standing over her, knowing that at many points of my life, we’ve shared so many memories, including classes, conversations, stupid but hilarious inside jokes, liking and sharing each others Facebook posts just days before she passed away, going with me to KNOTT’S FUCKING SCARY FARM, ya’ll – KNOWING ALL THAT and standing over her – totally surreal.

I attended the funeral with a close friend of mine and eventually ran into one of my high school bros/tennis buddy in high school. And as we passed through the glass doors of the venue, I couldn’t help but feel so drained after seeing her name on a white paper taped to a wall that pointed to her funeral’s direction.

We entered the incense-fumed chapel, the funeral already in progress. Family members were front and center doing funeral offerings to the departed. I veered to the right upon entrance and sat in the back, eventually catching the glances of a few of my high school friends who were dispersed around the chapel. We were given the opportunity to get up and bow to her and her family, but I kind of chickened out. In my mind, I was thinking, “I’m going to fuck all of that up.” Mind you, there was a lady on the microphone, instructing friends and family of what to do – but still. We all know I get eager and do my own thang. I’d be bowing before she even said anything.

Eulogies were delivered, following by an emotional outpouring of tears. Two memorial slide shows were presented and that’s when I realized that hey, I’m totally that friend that performs inappropriate gestures during pictures and will, in turn, get cropped out of slide shows. No worries, I wasn’t even the slightest bit offended of being cropped out. Besides, my eyes were crazy in those pictures and I was embarrassingly red.

Closing chants were performed, which in all honesty, was pretty mesmerizing since they went on for quite some time. They were so consistent. But in the process of transitioning my friend from one life to the next, I had completely blanked out. Perhaps I was still in disbelief, but somewhere in between bell ring 3 or 4, I snapped back to reality.

Following the chanting, we congo-lined up the pews and made way to see our her for one last time. I’m nervous for some reason. I’m not sure if I should leave my sunglasses on or off. Halfway up the line, I come to the realization that my sunglasses have prescription and if I wanted to take one last good look, it would have to be with them on. So on my face they went.

“I must look like a douchebag,” I remember telling myself. It’s kind of like seeing the mistress at a funeral with her big-ass hat and big-ass sunglasses. She’s emotionless, even as she walks beside the casket. She’s probably there to let everyone know that her name is on the will and she’s about to drop grands on her kids’ college tuition.

“If anyone were to pull me aside, I have a good reason as to why my glasses are on,” I thought. But honestly, other than being blind as a bat, I wished I had a black eye underneath. Just for good measure.

Bowing was involved. But this was a little bit more streamlined. I remember closely watching and examining the few that were in front of me bow to her and then bow to her family just so I wouldn’t mess up the already beautiful service. But for some reason I got even more nervous because this would be the first time in almost a year that I would see her. And honestly, I didn’t expect to see her like that.

My eyes darted off and my friend had just bowed to her family.

My turn. Breathe in, Neil…. Breathe out. Okay, go.

I stepped toward the casket… and, holy fuck, is that really her?

It IS her.

full-1And with that, reality swung a backhand and I felt numb in the face.

Her eyes were closed, almost like her quick naps in Forensic Biology back when we took it together. She had a hat on and was clutching onto a stuffed animal. She looked… at peace.

I took my last good look and in my mind, I said…

“Bye Stacey! I’ll see you soon, okay?”

I bowed to her and then to her family. Except when I bowed to her family, I felt very awkward because I wasn’t sure if I bowed to the right people. They bowed back though so I guess that was OK.

I would then drive in my first funeral procession. And honestly, if Stacey’s spirit was still roaming, she was probably playing a practical joke on me because my funeral sticker flew the fuck off en route to the cemetery. Not to mention, I was the last car in line. I prayed to the spiritual deity of traffic laws that he should bless me with flawless driving. Fortunately, the cops who led us to Rose Hills remembered that I was the last car in line and it was smooth (kind of) sailing from there.

Funeral processions are weird, man. We spent almost 50 hours of driving school to learn NOT to do any of those maneuvers – running red lights, stop signs, and cutting off cars that are trying to get on the road. It felt so wrong and shameful. But law enforcement was on my side.

We arrived at the cemetery after navigating through Alhambra and all its recklessness, poured out of our cars and into the grassy lawn of Rose Hills.

“We shouldn’t be here,” I said to my high school friends.

“Should’ve been a reunion.”

“Or a fucking wedding.”

Burial rituals were carried out. More chants. We put flowers on top of her casket before it was lowered to the ground. Her family took turns filling her grave and then that was that. Someone announced that the funeral was over and we were expected to just go on with the rest of our day.

My friend and I lingered around a bit, giving hugs to other friends who were present at the funeral. I stepped around her grave and saw her casket way below our feet. I got chills. Jesus Christ, she’s actually gone.

I offered my condolences to her sister, but the most heartfelt words I could muster at the time were, “I’m so sorry.”

What I really wanted to say was, “I’m so sorry. Your sister was an amazing gal. She’s someone I can trust to be completely honest. She wasn’t afraid to say, “Neil, you’re stupid” when I did do something stupid. She was unafraid. She sang a whole Savage Garden song on the phone to me, y’know. She also took good care of me when I took drugs in class. She didn’t like that, but she wasn’t judgmental. Your sister’s awesome. And I know she’s watching over all of us right now… well, maybe not so much me, but totally you. She’s probably laughing at me right now.”

I entered my car, totally bummed out. I had to excuse myself to the nearest Denny’s to recuperate because I felt emotionally drained and famished. And after splurging on an omelet while reminiscing on memories in between bites, I was literally like, “Fuck it.”

While I’m not so sure what kind of pain and suffering Stacey went through, what I do know is that she fought back and fought to live. It put that whole “live life to the fullest” mantra in perspective. But that idea doesn’t just pertain to the likes of skydiving or getting shitfaced wild at a party – it’s also taking the cards you’ve been dealt and owning it. Making them your bitch. She was passionate about spreading cancer awareness to her social circles, even going as far as opening up artwork donations for an auction that would help fund research. While I hadn’t seen her for quite some time, her Facebook statuses were always beaming with enthusiasm and confidence. She was fearless, even when death stared her right in the face. So with all the things going on in OUR lives – many of which are unaffected by any life threatening diseases – what exactly is keeping us from our passions other than shame?

While I may have lost a friend, I can truly say that she has been an inspiration. She’s revitalized “live life to the fullest” and that lesson will last a lifetime.

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About neilprotacio

Freelance journalist who just so happens to know what goes well with certain breads.
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