I have to talk about Amanda on a day I recognize each year as a milestone. I have to talk about Amanda because she was a divine soul, extinguished too soon. I have to talk about Amanda because I often wonder where she’d be if she had earned the survivor badge like I did.
Amanda was as much a firecracker as her vibrant red hair suggested. Her bespectacled eyes were green and her face was swept with little freckles. I’d seen many iterations of Amanda over the years, from a red mop of hair, to short budding fuzz, to a blue bandana around hairless head. No matter what version she was in at camp every June, she was just as funny and lively as ever.
We were coming up through an awkward, gangly age of braces and jean shorts and an evolution of technology from cassette decks to CD players. We grew through that stage where being cool was everything, willful ignorance was cute, and outright intelligence was just… not. My first and most prominent memory of her when she described something as repulsive and repugnant. As a logophile, those two words fell hard into my word well, but I didn’t want anyone to know how much more interesting she became to me when she said them. Smart did not equal cool.
Amanda wasn’t afraid of bugs like most girls. She played with spiders and befriended every six legged creature she saw, and I appreciated that, because I wasn’t one to run from an insect either. I’d been through catheters and chemo and bone scans and never learned to fear something so trivial and non-lethal. We joked—as I’m sure as obnoxiously as two tween girls could—about creating a bug spray defense system for all those who couldn’t abide a buzzing creature. We’d given our entrepreneurial endeavors some kind of hokey name that we wrote about in our scrapbooks.
The two of us bonded over our rural upbringings, exchanging stories about Amish neighbors and how some of her relatives had “Yanked” over and left the order. I will never forget her voice and how she spoke with her impeccable diction, even as a young girl. She was quick as a whip and full of knowledge, caring little for pop music and the fleeting dramas of early teenage life. The word most likely to be used to describe her was nerd or dork. But I loved her. I always felt torn between who I thought I should be—social and popular—and how I wanted to be. Confident. Pure. Self-assured. Like Amanda.
Amanda was not remotely swayed by peer pressure. She took risks and got dirty and stood tall for what she believed in. Deeply conservative, she made it a point not to go to the annual Friday night dance. While the rest of us preened in our little travel mirrors, dressing in all the fashions of the late ‘90s like plastic chokers and butterfly clips and smearing our cheeks with questionable glitter gel, Amanda quietly readied herself in whatever was the nicest in her suitcase. She posed for photos with us in what we thought was boy magnet attire, and she went to the dance. But she never went inside. She said she didn’t like the music, and it was too hot, and she opted to stay out on the wooden deck. We were aghast. How could she? How could she? We were having the time of our lives in there, holding onto the last precious hours as if we could feel our youth being torn from our hands. A few times, after negotiating and begging and general cajoling, she would oblige us for one song, and then she was gone again.
Saying goodbye to my friends for the very last time was torture. We sang camp songs at the final ceremony, swaying arm in arm to Lean on Me, holding each other and sobbing. We promised we’d see each other again. We would write and call and chat on AOL Instant Messenger. Time moved. Relationships faded. Our lives changed.
In August 2004, days before I was set to move into my college dorm, I got a surprise message on my parents’ answering machine. I recall rushing up to my computer to check my email, my worst fears confirmed by Amanda’s mom. That brave soldier lost her battle with cancer at the age of nineteen.
Her funeral was a sobering day, the kind of arresting moment that makes you pause and feel your own heartbeat and every cycle of breath in your body. The weather was beautiful, still warm with lingering summer. I left my dorm, the launch of my adult life, to celebrate the end of Amanda’s. There were so many people they filled the sanctuary and the overflow was housed in the basement of the church. I didn’t see anyone I recognized and I sat by myself, seeking comfort in the eyes of strangers as a slideshow played through the highlights of her life. When it was over, I took a step into the future, and left Amanda behind.
This isn’t the end of the story, though. Last year, after a massive collection of messages and coordination, our camp family reunited. It had been fifteen years since we’d seen each other. It was as effortless as it had always been, though time and miles and the complexities of life had separated us. We were all childhood cancer survivors, living all these years beyond our diagnoses, defying the odds.
I learned so many important things from Amanda that I’ll be thinking about on March 17th, my twenty-seven year cancer free mark. Life is beautiful, no matter what version you’re in. Stay true to what you believe in, even if the world tries to distract you. Appreciate the bugs and the sunsets. Sing at the top of your lungs. And always be exactly who you are.