When Elizabeth died, I didnâ€™t understand what was happening. Thatâ€™s not true. I knew what was happening, I just kept forgetting. And I still donâ€™t remember most of it. Whenever I want to remember the date she died, I look it up on the internet.
This is what I remember: She was all-American. Her family was Korean. She listened to terrible pop music. Her pierced navel became infected, and she was too scared to disinfect it herself. She dated my first college boyfriend. She laughed like a child. She was failing Genetics. She rollerbladed around campus, and her helmet was too large. She fenced. Her little sister looks just exactly like her. She pronounced â€œlaundryâ€ in a way Iâ€™ve never heard before or since. The way she said it, it rhymed with â€œfoundry,â€ with an elongated first syllable. I did not know that I loved her until she was gone. She was beautiful.
She tried to kill herself at least three times: with pills, with a butcher knife from the common room kitchen, and with fire. The night with the pills, I was working at our dormâ€™s front desk. It was my job to let people into the dorm if they lived there, or if they were on an approved guest list. Her boyfriend at the time came in, and asked me if I had seen her. â€œSheâ€™s dead,â€ I told him. It was a joke. This was before I knew that she was suicidal. The boyfriend didnâ€™t laugh, and I buzzed him in. She had taken most of a bottle of codeine.
Liz knocked on my door one night, holding a butcher knife. I saw the knife, and then I saw the blood on her arm. When I told the house masters what had happened, and we went to her room, her face crumpled. I used to think that â€œface crumplingâ€ was hyperbole, a puzzling and not too useful expression. But thatâ€™s what happened. Her face crumpled, she cried, and screamed at me, â€œMary, what did you do?â€
When the firemen broke down the door to her room, she was standing in the middle of the room. Those times when I tell the story to anyone, I usually say that she committed suicide. Sometimes, when I canâ€™t stop myself, I tell people that she died because she set herself on fire. And I picture her seated on the floor, dressed as a Tibetan monk, calmly burning in the center of her room that overlooked Massachusetts Avenue. But thatâ€™s not how it happened. She was not a monk.
Our dorm was less than two blocks away from the local firestation. We stood outside on the curb, and watched as the fire trucks raced past our building, and then come back several, long minutes later.
I did not go to see her in the hospital, and I never did after the other two attempts, either. When she left the dorm, it was as if she had never been there. I did not miss her, I didnâ€™t worry; I did not think about her. The MIT and Harvard newspapers called me to get a statement. I know what I said, because I can look it up electronically. But the phone calls surprised me. Why were they asking me? I barely knew her. When she died under intensive care, I had forgotten she was in the hospital.
The funeral was in New Jersey, where her family lived. We rode there from Cambridge in a large tour bus. We got up really early, probably 6am, and met in the front lobby. I wore something black, and kept forgetting that I was supposed to be sad. Someone would ask how I was doing, and I would smile and say, â€œIâ€™m doing well, how are you?â€ Then they would look sad, and I would remember that Liz was dead, and we were going to get on a tour bus and drive to New Jersey and put her in the ground. I would feel guilty, about the smile, the happy greeting, and the forgetting. And then someone else would ask me how I was, and the same thing would happen. It wasnâ€™t just me, though. One of the other tutors took me aside and said, apropos of nothing â€œMary, you put the fun in funeral!â€ So now I think that none of us were doing well, actually.
Elizabethâ€™s parents were happy to have us at the service. They liked that Liz had so many friends. They hadnâ€™t known she was depressed. Her brother gave the eulogy, and talked about what a great person she was. I thought, if sheâ€™s so great, why is she dead?
We had grief counseling. We were to role-play different scenarios in which a friend was in trouble, and we talked to them. When it was my turn, I grabbed the girl portraying the friend, and begged her not to leave me. â€œYou have to go on,â€ I told her, â€œyou have to go on. You have to.â€
That I have forgotten so much is a source of shame to me, lessened not at all by the fact that I know I am not unique.