A Birthday Letter to a Dear Friend

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Dear Ellie,

Today would have been your 22nd birthday. You’ve been gone, at least in the physical sense, since March – I can still barely wrap my mind around it. The shock, the jolt, hits me all over again, as it has time and time again for weeks. I admit I struggle with doubt, having faith in general these days. But I also believe that life places certain people in our lives for a reason. I first met you in treatment – I was particularly struck by your quiet presence. Although you didn’t speak much, I was struck by your careful, receptive listening to others who shared in groups. You replied with thought and insight beyond any other seventeen-year-old I had ever met.

Three years later, I would have never imagined we would cross paths again. What were the odds, in a different program out of state? When you arrived, I knew you were clearly struggling, at war with yourself. At the same time, I also saw true glimpses of you beyond this terrible disorder, as that first day you deadpan cracked an inside joke – a bird call – that only we would appreciate. In the following days into weeks we spent hours having “vampire chats” in your rooms with the lights out. You intuitively knew how to make anyone feel comfortable and safe, the sense of trust to needed to be open without any fear of judgment. We shared our stories – I was in a low place mentally and felt completely trapped, but felt glimpses of hope when you spoke of your faith.  Through everything, you had an enduring gratitude, believing in God’s plan for you.

Your creative spirit also drew me to you. I loved sharing music with you because we both appreciated such an eclectic variety, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the Spice Girls to Biggie Smalls (okay, maybe your excitement over 90s pop culture in general!). You were the first person my age who also expressed a love for Michael McDonald (outside of the Doobie Brothers). Maybe your appreciation for a diverse array of music across genres and eras resonated with me so much because it pointed to your general spirit on a broader level. In so many ways, you embraced life, with your wit, range of references in conversational banter, and creativity.

If I had to choose one word to describe you, perhaps it would be generous. At the risk of sounding cynical, in today’s competitive, often ego-driven society, bonding with a person who lives in an active spirit of kindness is something of an anomaly. I loved your authenticity, that you were so real, down to earth. You had one of the purest hearts of anyone I have ever known. People were attracted to you largely because you were genuinely interested in others’ well-being, the first to extend a helping hand.

The day I left the program (to transfer to a medical unit downstairs), I remember having packed haphazardly, instead having spent the time writing good-bye letters to everyone on the unit. I saved your letter for last, because I had so much to say and not the right words to do so. Another patient had given me “The Book of Letters” before she was discharged, a tradition in the community – a person, upon discharge, wrote a letter to be read by the next person, who would then add her own piece to the book, choosing another person to continue the chain. People told their stories, shared meaningful quotes, and offered words of encouragement. Upon receiving it, I knew immediately I wanted you to have it next. I had hoped, maybe in some way, you might take comfort in glancing through the words of others who were about to begin the next leg of their journeys.

When I handed it to you, I will always remember how shocked you were, which surprised me. I wished you could see even a glimpse of how worthy you were, and for all that you loved, that you were very loved in return. Later that day, upon moving downstairs, I received an unexpected visitor. I had just finished reading the beautiful hand-written card (complete with your famous drawings) you had penned me, addressed to “Dani California,” your nickname for me. One of your friends delivered a vase of flowers to me. Before I left, a family visited both units on our floor, distributing beautiful fresh bouquets of flowers to patients. I offhandedly commented that I wished I could have taken mine with me. You gave up yours, knowing they would brighten up my room and spirits.

I will carry you with me always – whether you’re on my mind as you often are, or in unexpected flashes as I see or hear something I associate with you. But I wanted something tangible to represent you as well. As we entered spring this year and the weather showed signs of improvement, I thought of your enthusiasm for outdoor activities, your awe of nature. I had a flashback to seeing a remarkable of photo of you in a park, in which a magnificent park had landed upon your hand, remaining long enough for someone to have taken a photograph. I was so moved by the beauty of the moment, the unusualness – at the same time, if anyone were to have such a magnificent creature rest upon her, it would be you. I instantly knew the perfect piece would be a dragonfly bracelet, which I wear every day in your memory.

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As I reflect upon you today, there is no denying how deeply you touched me – and I know I’m certainly not the only one. I always think of a line by the Sufi poet Rumi, stating, “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your being.” With your grace and beautiful soul, you left an indelible mark upon those who knew you – whether it was for a day or for years.

Love always,

Dani Michaud

(Dani California)

 

 

 

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