October 18, 2017

On a Beautiful Life

When I was in high school, many eons ago, the internet was shiny and new. For the first time, you could join communities of shared interests and make friends all over the world with the push of a button. I had whole forums and mailing lists of friends that would constantly pass messages back and forth all day long, eager to share their love of all things geeky. I’m still really close friends with twenty-some-odd number of those people, but today I’d like to tell you about one in particular. She and I were introduced by mutual friends who all exclaimed: “Hey! She’s tall like you and she’s also a big fan of TMNT. Oh, and by the way, she lives right near you.”

We got chummy online pretty gradually, until one day she invited me to the County Fair, where she was helping at a Girl Scout booth. It was August of 1997, and Weird Al was going to be doing a concert there. I said sure, and another friend and I drove up for the day.

As first impressions go, mine was kind of awesome. Erica topped me by a few inches, 6’2” of bubbly blond girl with a deep belly laugh and an enormous smile. She was just 15 years old. I dragged her on a bunch of rides, and by the end of the day, I had dubbed her “RicaChica”, a nickname that stuck for many years.

The first of many meetings. Erica’s on the left…that skinny thing on the right is me.

Since I didn’t have a car at the time, it was probably several months between that and our next real world meeting, but online we chatted several times a week. I got my first real job at Barnes and Noble, and found out her dad worked in a building right across the way. She would come through my line at the register to say hi whenever she was there to visit him.

One late spring/early summer day, she came through my line. I ecstatically asked her how she was, because I was always excited to see her.

“I have cancer.” She deadpanned. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. She was 16.

She was treated at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. I rode the bus to go sit with her while she got her chemo. We played the original Mario Kart on a Game Cube. I brought her a t-shirt I’d marched around to get signed by every artist I could find at San Diego Comic-Con (my first year attending). The chemo was rough, and she lost her hair for the first time. It grew back, a little wavier, a little less blond.

We got on with the important business of high school/college. We started staying weekends over at each other’s houses, or Jenn’s, my and her other best friend and mutual nerd. I’d go to see them in musical theater. We’d spend weekends watching anime and movies, eating junk food and making art. We went through horrible break-ups together, salved with more weekends together, the Tall Trio. We were so much in each other’s pockets that apparently there was some quiet talk amongst the families that we had all three switched teams and were triple-dating.

I think this may have been one of our first sleepovers.

She went away to college, up in the wild woods of Northern Washington. Jenn and I drove up to see her a few times, and on one visit, she introduced us to her newest crush, Bryan. I wasn’t entirely sure about him that first meeting, since he was an unknown quantity. The Tall Trio continued messaging every day, less with interest groups and more with our own core group.

Then one day came the email: The cancer was back. Same cancer, same location. She was 21, just past her 5-year remission mark.

She tried to get Bryan to leave her, afraid this meant that her time left was too limited. He wasn’t having it, and we knew then that he was the right one for her. She had a party where we shaved her head, and everyone brought her a hat. That round of chemo, she started having to get shots to boost her white blood cell count. After the chemo, they decided to do radiation treatments as well, to make sure it didn’t come back a third time. Her hair grew back more blond and straight.

I joined the military and started traveling the world. Erica graduated college and got married to Bryan. Jenn was the Maid of Honor, I gave the toast to the bride. She made so much art. She had a son, Warren, her spitting image. Bought a house. Had a daughter named after me, Bryan’s spitting image. Jenn got married to another Brian, and moved to Nebraska (we joked that as sisters, naturally they needed a matched set of Bri/yans). We got together every time we came home to visit family, and we continued to message each other every day.

While she was breastfeeding Little Leah, she discovered a lump in her breast. She was 27, and a year past 5-year-remission. Because they thought the cancer had spawned from the radiation treatments during the previous cancer, she had the whole breast lopped off. That chemo was one of the hardest, since the kids were so small and needed so much care. She wore beautiful colorful scarves. Her hair grew back wavy and strawberry blond. This was her favorite hair morph.

The kids grew into people with personalities, and she spent all day with them. She made as much art around their antics as she had time for. We all video chatted almost every day, and started an online tabletop roleplay campaign that lasted several years of long weekend nights. Some of these nights went for me until 2 or 3am, depending on where I was stationed. I got out of the military and moved back home, thrilled to be able to visit more often.

She got bronchitis one winter that didn’t want to go away, a nagging cough that just wouldn’t leave. They scanned it, to discover lung cancer, located right below where the breast cancer had been. She was 30. They took out an entire lobe of her lung. She stopped being able to run or exercise. When her hair grew back, it was curly and brown.

Jenn’s Brian got out of the military, and they moved back home. Erica got pamphlets every month on how to stop smoking and get her health back (she had never touched a cigarette in her life). We started a monthly gathering day where we ate and played games and just spent time together, just celebrating each other. We continued to video call almost every day, sometimes for whole days at a time, living virtually in each other’s pockets when we couldn’t in person.

The nagging cough came back. Scans revealed more lung tumors, too precariously located to remove this time. She was 31. They hit her with the heaviest chemo treatments they could, hoping to stunt the tumor’s growth, at least. Her hair hadn’t even really grown back in from the last treatment, so it decided to come back brown and curly again. The cough stayed and became just another thing she worked around.

The kids started school. Erica started drawing up lists and plans of what she wanted to finish. She wanted to see them graduate. We played a waiting game, anxious every six months when another PET scan came due to see if the monster squatting in her chest had stayed dormant this time. Sometimes it slept. Sometimes it got a bit bigger, and we did another round of chemo. Treatments were starting to run together, a continuous cycle of fighting to stop the inevitable. She tried immunotherapy. It didn’t work. Her hair grew back wispy then thinned.

We continued our gatherings in person whenever we could, sneaking trips to the coast and the gorge whenever we could. Jenn stayed on calls all day to watch over her when she had bad days. She kept making art, because art was like breathing, and both were getting harder to do.

I love us best when we’re laughing.

She started getting headaches and having vision problems. They did a scan of her head, and found a tiny tumor. She was 34. She did a targeted high radiation treatment called cyber-knife to nuke it in place. The radiation treatment triggered a grand mal seizure, which put her out of commission for months. The fight for experimental treatments began. She was going to do a treatment series in Seattle. It didn’t happen because she had a chest infection that didn’t want to go away.

It wasn’t an infection. When she showed us the scans of her liver, kidneys, and brain, all riddled with tumors, I couldn’t believe it. Three months prior her scans had been clear of new growth, and now there were so many. She was 35. They began to pick their battles, strategically going after the brain tumors first. Trying to buy time. Hitting the lungs with the same cyber-knife treatment. Her spine turned brittle from those treatments, and the residual wobbliness from the seizure caused her legs to give out. She fell often. She broke two vertebrae. They injected a medical cement into her spine to stabilize them enough to keep her going.

The doctor said she had six months. She began to have to take heavy doses of pain medications (several kinds at once) every day just to function. Walking became harder, sitting became harder. Her whole family went on a cruise to Alaska, a last big vacation together. We kept doing game and food days, planned a trip to the coast, and a girls only weekend to just be together like we used to do. As soon as she had a good day, we would go.

I was always wanting another selfie, even in the ER.

She was only supposed to stay in the hospice facility for a few days, to stabilize her enough to go back home again and do the things on her list. Make a scrapbook for her kids. Finish her stories with Jenn. Make art for so many people she loved.

She was going to. She wanted to do so much, had so much to stay for. She was determined to go down fighting to be with us all just that much longer.

And then she went to sleep, and couldn’t wake up. A few days later, she was gone. She was 35.

You guys know her as the artist for my book. Her art is stunningly beautiful, full of emotion and light, and it wasn’t even the best thing about her. She embraced living with laughter amid tears. She was silly and imaginative and practical. She always found a way to do the things she wanted to most, and she bridged gaps across continents to keep us close. She loved cheesecake, chocolate, and coffee. Erica loved her life. She fought like hell for almost the entire time I knew her to stay here. The world is a poorer place without her in it. I am so very lucky to have found her, to have been loved by her. In twenty years, we never once fought. She and Jenn are my best, closest friends.

A toast to a good friend gone beyond our reach, may she finally have peace. A toast to we poor bastards left behind, may we someday find peace without her.

How do we continue when we’ve lost something so massive? I don’t have that answer yet, this is still too new. But she would want me to fight like hell, to keep making art, to find the laughter. I will. I promise.