Memoir

The Girl Who Fell to Earth

A freak fall through a rooftop at a college party landed my best friend in a coma. As a deafening silence fell on our friendship I grasped for the words to keep us both breathing.

The Girl Who Fell to Earth

We leave the birthday party to stand on the balcony and talk about Venice. We’ll be flying there in just a few days, after we turn in our last papers of Hilary term. Under the bright moon hanging above Oxford, Annie glows: She’s wearing her favorite coat, the black wool one with the leopard fur collar. She found it in a small Stockholm shop in December and immediately knew it was meant for her.

Annie often tells me that she has never felt happier or more at home than she has over the past few months. When we meet in October, we are nothing more than strangers with a shared passion for well-worn books – two Barnard students making a home in Oxford, studying literature. As our friendship deepens, we quickly grow to love this old city, where it feels relevant to spend the majority of one’s time reading and writing and thinking about the works of Chaucer and Milton, of Woolf and Joyce. Annie and I share much together over these past few months: shitty first drafts, stories from our childhoods, a post-Halloween hangover, homesickness on Thanksgiving, uncontrollable laughter so loud that it seeps through the wall between our bedrooms after midnight.

I do not know it yet, warmed by wine and conversation with my best friend, that it is on this ordinary night, in this instant – the ordinary instant of which Joan Didion writes in The Year of Magical Thinking, the book I will begin to read a week later, attempting to make sense of my loss – that both of our lives will indelibly change.

Ten minutes later in the second-floor bathroom, reapplying a dark red stain to my lips, a sudden hush falls downstairs. The music’s been shut off, the shouting-to-be-heard of happy-drunk students celebrating a birthday has ceased. It’s the kind of eerie silence that precedes a summer storm. I emerge to find two first-year students standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at me – their eyes bleary, their expressions strained. We meet in the middle of the staircase. One girl rushes to embrace me; the other’s hand meets mine. She holds it tightly. “Oh, my dear. There’s been an accident. Annie, she…” The girl cannot finish her sentence.

But I was just talking to Annie; she was just smoking a cigarette on the balcony, wearing her favorite coat, gazing at the stars. My brain short-circuits. I do not wait for her to continue: “What happened? What’s going on? Where is she?” I ask, though I do not know if I’m ready for her answer.

“Annie fell through the roof.”

“She…what? What are you talking about? I don’t understand.”

“Someone has called the police, and an ambulance is on its way, and they will take care of her, and it’s going to be OK – she’s going to be OK.”

“Is she alive?”

“…”

I ask again, the fearful thought in the back of my brain growing louder.

“I…we don’t know.”

After her fall, I hear no sirens or screams; all I recall is the silence.

I stumble down the stairs and find the rest of our friends gathered in the living room, sitting quietly on the couch. Some cradle their heads in their hands, others stare straight ahead into space; a few come over to hug me. The scene feels unreal, because it is. It makes no sense that Annie stepped onto a roof whose flat weathered surface was not strong enough to support human weight, or that she fell two stories through corrugated plastic into a car dealership, or that a few of our friends attempted to pull her out. And yet: there I am, receiving this news in fragments, forming it into digestible pieces as best I can. All I want to do is ask Annie exactly what happened, what she was thinking, to go straight to the source. Later, I will learn from the boy who was with her when she fell that she stepped onto the roof to get a better view of the stars. Of course, this makes sense: How many times did she stand on roofs with her friends in the city to admire the endless view?

Instinctively, I call my boyfriend in New York. He does not know what to say, stays on the line as long as he can, tells me to call him later with more news. Outside, I spot a police officer holding Annie’s coat; her blood has stained the collar.

I walk along the road with the rest of the party guests, heading back to our dorm complex. I know I need to be there for her – with her – so a friend lends me enough money to call a taxi, and then I, too, am speeding toward the emergency room, crossing my fingers until they cramp.

A small group of Annie’s American friends gathers in the hospital waiting room. Sam – a constant source of calm throughout this chaos – has put a kettle on, makes us cups of tea, hands out the biscuits the hospital staff has left for us. We go through the motions of dealing with a crisis, even though none of us has ever faced this particular crisis before, let alone thousands of miles from home. We call our parents to tell them we are safe, yes; to explain that we do not know her condition, no. To tell them we love them and we will call again in the morning, to tell them not to worry. They are worried.

Back at the dorms, I somehow make it through the night in my friend Hannah’s sleeping bag. When I wake the next morning, I momentarily forget everything that has happened and wonder what I am doing on her floor. Then, of course, it all comes flooding back: the party, the roof, the accident, the emergency room, the not knowing whether she will make it through the night: the eerie, impenetrable silence.

Unreal as they feel, I must live through the days that unfold after Annie’s fall to earth. They are filled with laughably absurd moments, such as the time our college president – a Baroness and distinguished human rights lawyer – invites us for tea and brownies in her grand college lodgings. Later that afternoon, she hosts a college-wide gathering and speaks about Annie as if she has already passed away: “Annie Diamond was a poet.” IS a poet, I think. She is. Everyone keeps asking me if I have eaten, if I need to sit down, if I need help getting from here to there, as if I am a frail old women who has let herself go. Friends offer to buy me soup and bring me flowers, as if I am a widow. I walk through Oxford in a daze, having coffee at the café where we shared lunch together but a week prior. Every place I go bears the imprint of our friendship-in-the-making. In those first few days after her fall, I exist in a living scrapbook of the places we saw together for the first time, talked late into the night, discovered where our thoughts intersected and where they went their separate ways.

* * *

Her parents and brother fly in from Connecticut, shaken but managing when I meet them in the hospital. They learn that their daughter’s brain is swelling, her spine is fractured, her liver and kidneys are bleeding internally. To top it all off, it is their wedding anniversary. We raise a half-hearted toast at lunch.

The only time I met Annie’s mom before this was the day she helped move Annie into the bedroom beside me. Now, there is the question of what to do with the stuff in her room, for the fact stands – the unspoken yet collectively acknowledged fact – that even should she survive, she will not be returning to Oxford to finish out the school year with us. Her books must be packed into boxes, her clothes thrown into suitcases and sent back to the States, with or without her.

Annie has been placed in a medically induced coma until further notice – as in there is no perceivable end to this nightmarish pause in our friendship. As in no one, not even the best neurologists in Oxford, know when – or even if – she will wake up. Worse yet, we have no clue if, in the event that she does come out of this okay, she will have access to her memories, to language. Annie is a poet; this is a problem. Watching her breathe offers us hope, but it is not the breathing of the lively, bright girl I knew a few days earlier. It is the heavy, tired, effortful breathing of a far older person who has experienced great pain, but cannot tell anyone where it hurts.

A few nights after the accident, I receive a message from Annie’s best high school friend. He and I have never met, but he’s heard about me during their long-distance calls, seen me in her photos. I give him a call. It is unavoidably awkward to comfort someone who has known Annie for far longer than I have, to reassure someone when I am far from sure about anything. Without offering any context, he asks me to share an inside joke of theirs the next time I see her, even though she will not be able to hear it. We make her a playlist of her favorite artists – David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Joni Mitchell, Lorde, The Magnetic Fields – to share with the nursing staff, believing that the music might soothe whatever parts of her brain are fighting, so hard, to return her to us.

In spite of the knowledge that she cannot read them, I also continue to send Annie daily photos and Facebook messages: our shared horoscope, mundane details, small signs of good luck.

In part, these brief updates serve as a refusal to accept that she’s missing anything. But they are as much for me as they are for her: I find it difficult to write anything of substance during this period unless it feels directly connected to Annie, as if my every thought must in some way serve a healing purpose. This is my helplessness speaking, of course. I do not know whether she will ever get a chance to read the messages, and if given the chance, whether she will want to fill in the blanks of her life with my memories and impressions, rather than her own. Still, I like that our conversation continues, even if it is temporarily one-sided.

When our termly break arrives, I do not travel to Italy with Annie and Hannah as planned. Instead, I spend a week in Paris with a Columbia friend who’s studying abroad there. Anxiously waiting in Oxford will not make news of her progress come faster; a change of scenery might do me good. I spend the week wandering alone through cemeteries, visiting the dried rose-strewn graves of famous writers, reading on park benches, dining alone in all the cafés they tell you Hemingway wrote in, drank in: places I know Annie would love. In Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore Annie dreamed of someday living in and earning her keep for a while, I scribble a note to her and tape it to the wall, hoping she’ll get the chance to read it. I cannot recall the content of that note, only that I told her to write back below when she finally made it to Paris.

Every night before bed, I read the detailed updates her parents post to the CaringBridge page they maintain during this time, telling all of us about her small, hopeful moments of progress. Today, Annie yawned. Today, Annie squeezed our hands with palpable pressure. Today, Annie opened her eyes. Today, Annie smiled.

When I return to Oxford, Annie’s journey to recovery has only just begun. Although she’s finally awake, she’s still weak and speaking in whispers and unable to walk unsupported for more than a few steps. Still, it’s a start. To my great relief, she recognizes me as soon as I walk through the door. “Hi,” she says, and my heart nearly explodes. I never thought that hearing my best friend say hi would feel like a miracle.

At the hospital, it is back to basics. As Annie slowly adjusts to the lack of heavy sedation and returns to consciousness, her speech therapist encourages her to start keeping a daily diary. She struggles at times to recall the simple details of her days: what she ate for breakfast, who came to visit her, what the sky looked like outside her window. These entries are far removed from the literary ambitions she held when she arrived in Oxford, but for now, they will do. It is so strange to see Annie struggle to find the words – of which she has never been at a loss– to fully express herself.

During her stay at John Radcliffe, where she rests until her doctors feel she’s able to take the long flight back to Connecticut, Annie receives some good news: She has won not one, but two poetry contests for a poem she submitted before the accident, a villanelle titled “The Difference Between Lack and Absence.” We marvel at the irony: Even in this time of physical and artistic silence, her words manage to reach others across continents.

The night before she heads back to the States, I sneak in cheeseburgers and milkshakes from Annie’s favorite diner in Oxford. We sit on her hospital bed together and talk about the weirdness of everything that has occurred in the past month. We begin to plan the details of her 21st birthday party. Tomorrow, she will leave the city she has grown to love most, will leave behind Trinity term before it has begun, will leave me alone in my tiny dorm room without her laughter in the room next door. She will grow strong again during months of physical therapy; will rest for the summer in Martha’s Vineyard before attempting to make it back to New York for one more year of her undergraduate career. For now, though, this is goodbye.

One December night, before her fall, Annie and I sat together on a Copenhagen windowsill after a week of traveling around Scandinavia. She told me about an old high school teacher of hers who once shared an unsolicited piece of Life Advice with her class, as high school teachers are wont to do. When you find yourself in a beautiful moment, her teacher had said, you should do your best to actively lock that moment in your memory, down to its most minute details. Years later, you will be amazed at the clarity with which you can time travel back to the beauty using only your mind, no photographs or journal entries or semi-embarrassing blog posts needed. Looking back, of course, it struck Annie as a clichéd sentiment, but when she first heard it, it felt like the most important thing.

As the bus pulls away from the hospital for the last time, I am reminded of this moment – sitting on the sill, letting the cold Copenhagen air into our rented bedroom, being so far from home but feeling far from lonely. It was the kind of moment of which her teacher spoke. Then, we sat quietly, content to be alive in each other’s presence, holding no awareness of anything ahead and dwelling little on the days now behind us. An ordinary instant.

Before her fall, Annie tended to see the events that occurred in her life as inevitable steps she needed to take so as to bring about whatever good thing came next. She insisted on viewing the past for what it was: past. To her benefit, now that she is on a track to a full recovery, she treats the accident no differently. Not that she’s exactly happy it happened. It hurt like hell, and we missed her like crazy while she slept for weeks, still with us but also far away, somewhere whose details will forever remain unknown to us and to her.

Months after our last night together in Oxford, Annie and I meet for dinner together in New York – the fall semester of our senior year at Barnard already in full swing. She tells me that she does not wish that the accident had never happened; she does not wish away the silence that settled in the weeks of her near-death experience.

Everything Annie knows about the accident came to her through secondhand sources: the boy who was with her when she fell, her family who stayed with her at the hospital for weeks on end, the article published in our college newspaper. Now, in her poetry seminar, she suddenly finds herself with a lot to say – not just about the accident, but about everything in her life, everything she has witnessed firsthand and every event in which she has been even minorly involved. Despite her patchwork memories of that March night, colored in by so many voices other than her own, Annie continues to work out the impact and meaning of the accident in her life at large. “Writing about it has made it feel like mine,” she says.

After dinner, we walk arm-in-arm toward the subway station at 86th Street and Broadway. In the chilly air of early October, Annie pulls her freshly dry-cleaned black coat (salvaged from the police station in Oxford before she flew back to the States) closer around her. Her gold glitter eye shadow catches the light. My best friend stands beside me: brighter and stronger than ever.

* * *

Annie Diamond is a poet, budding James Joyce scholar, and recent graduate of Barnard College, where she studied English and creative writing. She has most recently been published in Cargoes, the literary journal of Hollins University, as the winner of the Undergraduate Poetry Competition, and plans to begin an MFA in poetry in 2016.