Letter to Jill Birnbaum, Friend Who Passed Last Summer at 40

Dear Jill,

The first time I saw you we were freshman in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A bunch of us were traipsing over an icy sidewalk behind you, headed toward a party, destination unknown. I was shivering, lost, and impressed that you seemed so festive, despite the horizontal snow battering the thin coat you wore over an ankle-length flowery skirt.

It wasn’t until a full year later that we really spoke. My 20th birthday had ended in tears—I couldn’t believe I’d gotten so old. While blotting my eyes in your sorority bathroom, you whirled in to brush your teeth. Without much preamble, we dove into talking about how we felt about ourselves in the mirror, serious at first, then both of us laughing, confessional, connected. I had no idea then that our conversation would go on for decades.

That semester, you often came by my house with a “box du vin,” and I’d come for spaghetti night at your sorority. Sometimes I’d sleep over in the extra bed, not wanting to walk home alone in the freezing night. You’d play tapes of Garrison Keillor at high volume, assuring me his voice had soothing powers. In the daytime we rehashed his stories and our own through hours of coffee drinking, semi-studying, and outright procrastination.

We ended up living together junior year, both of us having left the task of house hunting until the day before classes. I landed us a dark green house on East University, miraculously still available despite its central location. An enormous pine towered in front, blocking the windows. We agreed the tree made the place auspicious, as if we would be camping.

Inside, there were orange carpets with gaping stains, and oatmeal-colored couches with busted springs. Rain drizzled through the roof, and we set up pots and pans amidst our mess of pizza boxes, lemon rinds, vodka bottles and of course your pages of Chinese characters and my scattered books. Despite the squalor, our house became a hub, partly because it was indestructible, but mostly because you were there.

You had a thousand friends, and I had a handful, but I never felt less special for having to share you. I secretly believed I was number one, though I knew a few others likely did too. You were a soul mate, more important to me than any of the guys I dated.

The following year, both of us semestering abroad, we wrote letters, Perth to Beijing. Those thin blue aerograms you sent were another kind of mirror, a positive one, reminding me of who I was and who I wanted to be. Your stories about China—a place which wasn’t always easy—had both the lightness and the depth to rival those of Lake Woebegone, with the same soothing power.

Senior year, I lived across the street from you, though I’d often sleep in that extra room off yours, chatting from the twin bed to your futon for long hours as the bare branches beyond the window piled up with white. Other times you’d come by my studio for the one dish I’d learned to cook, sautéed salmon in a “secret sauce” you finally forced me to admit was simply mayonnaise with garlic.

Graduation day, we walked the miles to the stadium together in our blue robes, hatching plans to run away to Alaska and wait tables. I would be a writer, you would sing. After college, we kept in touch by fax, China to California. I’d get a call from Kinko’s that I had seven pages from Beijing, and I’d drop everything and race there on my bike. Finally, I mentioned in my messy scrawl that maybe I’d move to Beijing. Any country where you lived seemed like home. You immediately sent names and numbers of people who’d host me in Hong Kong, and suggested I take the “slow boat” from there to Shanghai, which I did, along with several hundred elderly Chinese retirees.

In Beijing, we housesat for months in the surreal “foreigner compound,” hosting your friends, friends-of-friends and acquaintances passing through, long nights of stories and wonder and silliness. We took a cab to the Great Wall, biked through Tiananmen Square, but the day I remember most vividly we were perched by a vast, sludge filled construction pit, watching yellow backhoes roaring below us and splattering muck. We were eating vanilla ice cream on a stick, getting a bit muddy ourselves and having a grand time.

After China, we hiked in Nepal. After Nepal, we hung out in Laos. For the first time, I was the one with the overseas job, and you came to visit me. Though you had work in Kathmandu—not to mention a home and a goat—in a way I was still following you. I’d feverishly set out to learn the Lao language, after years of watching you speak Mandarin. I too wanted that skill, and that spark you had that lit people up.

Laos, as a Lao-speaking falang, turned out to be the most heart-opening adventure of my life, and I would never have even known of the country except that you’d ventured there first. On a brief jaunt, you’d hitched a ride down the Mekong with an old man on his rickety boat. When the craft listed and then sank, you were forced overboard, along with dozens of crates of oranges. Fruit bobbing around you, you swam ashore with your Nikon held aloft and Curious George crammed in your shirt.

A baffled bunch of nearly-naked Lao children met you on the jungly shore. I still vividly remember your photos of that day. You asked the boys to pose with your ragged Curious George, which they did, solemnly. Then, in the next shot, all of them had fallen into laughter, arms out, mouths open, heads thrown back, two boys thrusting George outward and up like a hero.

“Those were the greatest kids,” you said, leafing through your pictures, which were also a portrait of you, though you weren’t in them. Soaked, stranded, stripped of your luggage, the first thing you did was make fast friends—with or without a shared language.

Jill, you had friends everywhere. When you came to Bethesda, my hometown, you seemed to know more people than I did. At the movies, at a bar, someone was always shouting “Jill Birnbaum!” across the room.
We met up in Palm Beach, where our grandmothers both had condos. We visited back and forth between New York and California, took off on bikes to the Pacific Northwest. One year, we fell silent for three months. I’d forgotten your birthday, then felt too ashamed to call.

When I finally explained my paralysis, you spoke in a rare steely tone. “Don’t ever do that again,” you said, meaning, don’t stop talking. On 9/11, I dialed your number until I got through.

Jill, I saw you last in Vermont, at Tina’s wedding. You’d taken up the invitation to camp in the woods on the groom’s father’s farm. I drove up at noon to watch you emerge from a thick forest in a super-stylish tiered silver dress and strappy sandals. Despite having slept in a flooded tent, you looked gorgeous, and you laughed as you called out across the field, “I’m the only one out there!” The next night, you’d befriended a fellow reveler and shared her room.

Last fall we Skyped, Berkeley to London, so much having changed from the days of lengthy faxes and penned letters. Like our first-time bonding in a sorority bathroom, we talked about our bodies and how we felt, though this time the problems were tangible, medical, but solvable, we both believed. Once again we were laughing, confessional, connected.

“I love you to the sky,” we said to each other as we hung up, a phrase of yours I’d long made my own.

I can’t believe it’s been twenty years since I met you, or that I once cried because twenty seemed old. I’ve cried this week knowing that forty is so young. Jill, you are still leading us over the ice, but now you’ve broken off and gone ahead, destination unknown. I will never not miss you. I will never stop talking to you. With or without words, you still have much to tell me, and that spark of yours shines on forever.