One afternoon in first grade, I shared a school bus seat with a classmate named Lela Kay. With azure eyes, and hair as yellow and fine as corn silk, she was the girl everyone wanted to be near. “Want to be best friends?” I asked. She nodded, and we formed our own two-girl club. My family moved from our home in Houston the next year, but Lela and I got together on trips down to see my grandparents. We’d trade outfits, sing along with our favorite pop station, and mostly, giggle over nothing.
Then once, around junior high, I didn’t call Lela when I was in town. I told myself I was busy, but to be honest, I was getting jealous of her. She was becoming prettier and popular in her world, and I was not.
Not long after, my mother showed up at school, and sobbed when she saw me. Lela Kay had a brain tumor. When I saw my friend in her hospital bed, she looked up from those same brilliant eyes, but did not move. Her stunning hair was gone. This wooden, bald Lela shocked and frightened me. I could only walk to the window and fiddle with a clock radio. She would eventually smile weakly and grip your hand. Still, she neither stood nor spoke until she died, years later.
I couldn’t allow myself to cut my hair as I went on through school, as if I could bring Lela back inch by inch. Nothing made sense. How could someone no older than me, someone so seemingly perfect, suddenly become a teenaged-sized infant?
Medical questions are now the daily fare of my job. I talk to those struck by disease, and as I did thirty years ago, people ask, “Why her?” “Why me?” The human body is a magnificent machine, but encountering all the ways it can malfunction, I sometimes marvel that it works so well, in so many people, for so long.
Some folks call me to cast blame for their conditions — on their insurers, on their employers, on their doctors. Some blame themselves. These are natural reactions born of anger or guilt, but also, I think, out of a search for comfort. It’s disconcerting to find that disease might happen out of an unpredictable, unfortunate shuffle of circumstance and genetics that medical science can’t yet explain.
Personally, though, I’ve long stopped wondering why Lela died. She would not want me to be glum. She would want only for me to see the life I have now with my husband and children as a gift. Because it is.
I believe that human connections offer the deepest sources of joy in this life. But I am humbled to think how fragile they might be. Every day I am reminded we will all die, and none of us knows when. I just hope those around me always know with certainty what Lela did not: How happy I am that they have lived.
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