In Memory: A Girl I Once Knew
“You can’t swim in a town this shallow.”
I read this on her Myspace page. We were seniors in high school, about to graduate and leave home for whatever came next. In the fall, I would be a freshman at a reputable university in the same city, but based on this blurb on her social media profile, I imagine that she had her sights set further away.
I had known Vanka since elementary school. When we were eight years old, she was the new girl and she sometimes wore a red jacket. We were classmates for two grades, and although we weren’t close friends, we were friendly — all kids are when they are young.
I lost track of Vanka in middle school, the usual time of relegating kids into their appropriate social circles. I sorted myself in with the overachievers, in gifted classes and extracurricular science clubs. I think Vanka ended up somewhere cooler and much more fun.
I found her again during our senior year in AP Spanish. I was always a bit shy, but language classes force you to talk, so I occasionally found myself part of group conversations with Vanka, mostly listening but included nonetheless.
She was vibrant. Well-liked and bubbly — a stark contrast to myself, a quiet and introverted nerd. Girls wanted to be her or be her friend. Her boyfriend Matt adored her. In the style of popular and trendy girls our age, she decorated her notebook with photos of her colorful life. When she spoke, she radiated excitement for everything headed her way. The future held promise and adventure. We were on the cusp of adulthood, after all.
I was jealous of her, which is one reason why I looked her up on Myspace that one time even though I didn’t have an account and we weren’t actually close friends.
One day Vanka wasn’t in Spanish class. We knew something was not right when a school counselor came in to speak to us. This was two months before graduation, but our graduating class was not going to be the same.
Vanka was only seventeen.
The cause of Vanka’s passing is not really pertinent to this story, but to be clear, it was no one’s fault. Life just isn’t fair sometimes.
Her memory came to me randomly today. Maybe it’s because I watched Moana and thought about Pixar and then Finding Nemo.
And then I thought about being too big of a fish in a pond that is too small.
And then I thought about her. About how she dreamed of something bigger than the sheltered and stifling suburbs of Southern California.
As someone born and raised here in San Diego, I always felt like the city was enough for me. At times I thought that the city was too much for me; maybe even this life was too much for me. I was a sad kid when I was in high school. There was a time when I wondered if I would ever grow up to be an adult.
Part of me felt guilty that I’d have that chance, when someone like Vanka did not.
I wish I could say that I fully embraced this privilege of life in the years following high school. I wish I could say I made it all count, as a favor to her if not for myself. But that would be a self-important lie that reduces her memory to little more than a flimsy inspirational story that I read once.
I really didn’t know Vanka that well. Yet I do remember really good things about her. Like her smile, kindness, and willingness to include others in her discussions about her life and what she loved. I remember feeling gratitude to her for letting me be a part of that.
In the end, I cannot make the tragedy of her abbreviated life okay. I just try to make sense of the memory and make a commitment to never forget. Her love for life, her thirst for more, her aspirations for a better world. A place not so shallow.
I’m still figuring “it” all out, more than ten years later after graduating from high school. Some things will never make sense, but we keep going if we have the opportunity.
May God bless and keep you, Vanka*. You are remembered well.
[Author’s note: names have been changed, but nothing else.]
AUTHOR: Janelle Shin
AUTHOR BIO: Janelle is 29, recently married, and suffers from chronic existential crises. She has a scholastic background in Psychology and Fashion Design. Independently, she is interested in digital design (2D, 3D), storytelling, drawing, and reading. And eating too many sweets. Janelle explores the broad topic of “Creating a beautiful life” – she discusses the significance of building healthy relationships, reflects upon what makes this life tragic and divine, and encourages the pursuit of activities that inspire wonder and creativity (her favorites are reading, writing, sewing, and learning).
LINK TO SOCIAL MEDIA: http://www.instagram.com/she.writes.for.good