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Wenting Li

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

The riot of pink petals that annually heralds spring reminds me of losing my best friend. In Vancouver, where I’m from and where I met her, the cherry blossoms come in April. In Toronto, where I live now, they burst out with relief a few weeks late in early May. Ashley died in April, 2006, at 22 years, just after blossom season.

I once drove with her to a crappy bar in Surrey, B.C., to listen to a friend play music. He strummed his acoustic guitar in a corner where there was too much space, too few people and not many of them cared. But she cared. That invisible musician is now a famous singer-songwriter who has toured on three continents. A few years after that night, he would write a song about her that she would never hear. She missed more than concerts: She missed marriages, birthdays and births, convocations.

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When I get my PhD, I will wonder what would she have done to mark the occasion? The only thing I memorialize year after year is her death. This is odd, considering how full of life she was.

She once met me for a coffee, the summer after I had been at university, exclaiming, or complaining, very loudly about still being a virgin, which was a little embarrassing as an opening salvo in a public place – even more so when a passing customer muttered “I’ll bet not for long!” But she was vivid, bubbling, undeterred. Another day, we threw coconuts out of her bedroom window to see if we could smash them. (Nope.) Another day we lunched in English Bay, went tandem biking in the park and bought lottery tickets just for the hell of it.

When she got sick, she would host spa days for her girlfriends and chemo parties when she had to go to the hospital. Before she cut off her (long, blonde, adorable, Pollyanna) hair, she dyed it pink and made a mohawk out of it. I was always away at school, so I sent her surprise gifts in the mail: cards, notes, a Styrofoam stem-cell bouquet when she had her transplant, because she wasn’t allowed real flowers in the oncology ward. She knew how to say the right thing in the right moment. When I told her on the phone from Montreal that I didn’t feel enough a part of her “cancer life,” she assured me that I was the friend with whom she pondered the meaning of life, from however far away.

After she became ill, I felt out of tune with her. She was cheery and optimistic; I felt gloomy and serious. Cancer seemed like a gloomy and serious business: She seemed pretty chipper for a cancer patient. Maybe I was trying to balance her out? When I held the hand of her priest in a prayer circle in her hospital room, I thought I was probably screwing it up. I wasn’t religious myself, and had doubts about the limits of optimism: Would my lack of faith prevent some kind of God-magic from working through her?

I have a few regrets. My family made hers a chicken stew one night far into her third relapse, and we forgot the garnish, a few handfuls of cashews. I drove them over and her dad invited me in for dinner. I was only five minutes from home, but I didn’t want to intrude. She hadn’t been seeing people for weeks. Maybe she didn’t want me to see her like that. Maybe they needed family time. Politeness overwhelmed my urge to take as much time as I could with her, just in case it was the last time. I didn’t stay long; I just hugged her and left.

It was the last. Last hug, last smile (this one weaker, as if it knew the future she didn’t want to acknowledge, but her hug still as strong and firm as ever).

Last year, my parents sold my childhood home. When they did, they sold the place I connect to my memories of her. The kitchen where the phone call happened and my mother quietly broke the news. Where my whole world fell apart in a way that I didn’t know it had ever held together: The joint-lines appeared only as they cracked. The deck where I sat warmed in April sunshine beside the magnolia tree, taking stock of the first day that she didn’t exist. I thought she must have left us purposefully on the most beautiful day of early spring, to soothe us. These memories are now displaced: I will have to carry them from home to home.

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I study displacement in language: That is a simple way of describing an abstract symbolic system it took me nearly a decade to master. But time is a tricky abstraction. At 22, I didn’t know what it meant to die young. Thirteen years later, I still don’t really know. I might know when I am 70 or 80. Only then will I know what a lifetime actually looks like. Losing a friend in youth begins a lifelong process of measuring the scope of that loss, and can only be fathomed from the other side, when the tally is complete. Each year, I add another season of blossoms to the tally.

I wonder what 35-year-old Ashley would be like: Would she still be bubbling irresistibly about her personal life in the Starbucks lineup? I think she would probably have children of her own now (I don’t). She’d probably be hanging out with other moms in Stanley Park, still spending more time on others than on herself, reaching out to strangers. And I’d still be out of sync with her, chasing my academic goals, connecting for late-night phone conversations from 3,000 kilometres and three time-zones away, displaced in life stages as well as geography. This is comforting.

I’ve never been to High Park to see the cherry blossoms, although I’ve lived in Toronto now for a decade. They’ve always been out of step with my memories of April petal showers: May blooms are a double-blow, a second-winded wallop two weeks late and hanging on. But this disjunction makes possible a different symbolism: Perhaps these blossoms are not just for remembrance, not just about lasts but firsts. Perhaps we make too much of lasts. What have I measured, from the last day I saw her, until now? How many blossoms?

I’m going to make my first pilgrimage this year to High Park to see the cherry trees in bloom: This time not to chase a memory, but to start something new.

Alexandra Motut lives in Toronto.

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