August 26th. From 2009 onwards, I am able to tell you what I was doing on this day every year. Every summer, for those twenty-four hours, I’m sixteen again and wondering how life can be so cruel.
In my hometown, the summer after high school is all about exam results, first jobs in beach shops, firework displays, and long walks home by the sea because you missed the last bus. Usual teenage stuff. What’s not on the list is to lose one of your close friends forever.
‘Cancer.’ Only six letters. Two syllables. Just another word in the English language, nothing more. But that is enough to destroy.
To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what Cancer was. I knew it was an illness and that it could be fatal, but I didn’t know what causes it or how it is treated. And why should I have known? I was young and healthy, and no-one I knew had been chronically ill before. It wasn’t part of my world. When Laura was diagnosed, I just assumed she would get better. Okay, it might take a long time, and she would have to go to hospital a lot so I wouldn’t see her in school as often, but then eventually she would be okay and things would return to normal.
I sent her letters, and messages on Bebo with pixelated hearts. We talked about all the things we would do when she recovered – sleepovers, day trips to London, and what colleges we wanted to go to. This Cancer business was just a blip, a mark on the present which would soon go away.
Then I got the phone call. I didn’t answer it, because it was a private number. But Laura’s mum left a message and asked my mum to call her back. I thought that was strange, but didn’t worry too much. Parents talk to each other all the time, right? So I gave mum my phone and went back to Photoshopping pictures for dA and singing along to anime soundtracks. Then I got the second call to come downstairs.
When mum told me the news, I didn’t know how to respond. Is there even a correct way? I didn’t cry, or say anything. I just stood there in the kitchen, thinking ‘no, no, no!’ Then mum hugged me, and was stroking my back and saying ‘oh darling, it’s okay’ but it never is, is it? I think I was in shock. Mum told me I didn’t have to go to work that evening, that I should stay home and give myself ‘time.’ But I felt okay. I felt nothing. If I stayed at home, what good would that do? So off I went. Then two hours later, it hit me. I locked myself in the staff toilets and laid on the floor in tears.
Six Augusts have passed since then. For every one, I have lit a candle for Laura and sat for a few moments to remember her, and tell the universe how much I love and miss her. For this seventh year, I’m in Japan. Here, death anniversaries are called ‘meinichi,’ which literally translated means ‘life date.’ It is customary to mark meinichi by visiting grave sites, temples, or shrines to pray and burn incense for the deceased. I’m not religious, but I can’t deny that shrines and temples hold a special atmosphere. They are the most serene, inviting places, and I have never felt out of place in them. Finding one to do my annual reflection seemed like a wonderful idea.
At the weekend I was visiting Okayama, a calm, peach-filled city in southern Japan. I had a bike and a fabulous tour guide, who led me to Munetada shrine. The entrance was on a bustling main road, but inside the peace I’ve come to associate with shrines was there nonetheless. I’m sure that torii gates are portals, because every time I pass through one it’s as though the outside world ceases to exist. Even the sticky summer heat seemed to relent.
Firstly, I went to the fountain and performed the cleansing ritual, tearai, which involves using a small bowl on a stick to wash your hands and face. From there, walked to the front of the shrine and tossed a coin into the donation box. Then I shook the rope to ring the bell, bowed twice and clapped twice to greet the deities, and then sent them my thoughts: Dear Gods and Goddesses. Thank you for this beautiful space in which we can think and reflect. Please, send my best wishes to Laura. Let her know that I’m thinking of her still. Carry my love to her.
Another bow, and then I sat down on a bench beneath a tree. I remembered her smile, and us singing to Hannah Montana songs. It struck me how much things change. Exactly seven years ago, I was just out of high school, sad, confused, and unsure of my future. In the time since then, I’ve been through college, university, and secured a full-time job in a foreign country. Before I moved, I met up with most of my other friends from high school; renewing bonds after years of growth and change. They’re all doing their own amazing things as well – studying, working, travelling. Some even have children of their own. We’re all women now, twenty-somethings taking on the world. But Laura will always be sixteen. I couldn’t help wondering what she would be doing, if she were still here. What would the last seven years have given her? Maybe we would also have sat in Starbucks, exchanging gossip over fruit coolers and Nutella cookies, before I boarded my plane.
Often, during moments of grief and anger, I catch myself asking ‘why do things like this happen?’ But then I scold myself, because I already know the answer. There can be no good in this world without bad, and sometimes the bad has to win. Grief is something you learn to live with, not get over. But if someone told me they could change it, they could take the grief and bad things away from me, I wouldn’t want them to. Changing things wouldn’t bring Laura back. I would rather be able to miss her because I knew her as an amazing friend instead of having never known her in the first place.
Because of Laura, I have learned to not to be complacent, to be wary of any and all illness, and to live life to the full regardless. There are so many things she never got the chance to do, but in a way, we’re all doing them for her. I know I’m not the only one of my high school friends who keeps her memory close by.
I don’t know where I’ll be for Laura’s future meinichis, but I know for certain that I will continue to mark them somehow for the rest of my life. Remembering her is an integral part of my summer. Maybe, if I have children, when I’m gone too each August 26th they will light a candle and say ‘mum used to do this every year. It’s a tradition.’
And so, like that we remember and are remembered. With flames and thoughts, bells and bows, and most importantly, with love.
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