September 29, 2009

Melanie Pimentel Toth

© Copyright 2018 by Melanie Pimentel Toth


Photo of a distant galaxy.

I decided to write this story, because I felt like it needed to be put down. The words (the guilt) had eaten away at me for so long and they refused to stay cooped up anymore. This is a true, autobiographical story that focuses on my personal struggles growing up, the girl who pulled me out of the slump, and the details leading up to her early death.

Trust can be hard to come by, even for a child. Maybe even moreso for a child, whose skin is tender still so the scars can dig deeper, stay longer. It’s funny, really, how platitudes start to wither as time passes; thinking back, I sometimes wonder how it was that, young as I was, I could feel so alone.

Colorado Springs wasn’t the worst place to live—the weather was cold, the way I like it, and just above the horizon, west-facing, you can always see the great reach of the Rockies stretching high up, and up. I loved those mountains; still do. They have always been able to center me; to bring me home. But it wasn’t the environment that plagued my young mind…no, indeed, not the world itself, but rather the inhabitants of that world. Inhabitants both naïve and cruel, lost and hurt themselves, searching for something though they knew not what. I can understand the feeling, but such a thing is harder to accept as a child. When everything is fresh and new, the pains—the isolation—are just as fresh and damning.

I’ll never forget Cody, or the way we treated him—all for the sake of “fitting in.” It was the fifth grade, and I was in a tailspin for disaster. My grades plummeted; my self-esteem fell even further. I was taken out of the “gifted” class—a place in which I had found solace—and my former friends were either gone or changed in ways I could not recognize. It was hard to stay above the surface—hard to breathe through the tightening hand of fear gripping my child’s chest—and I was desperate to find a place where the waters of foolish adolescence would not consume me and drag me down into their secluded depths.

Cody was another form of outcast—different from me, because he did not know how to metamorphose into something unreal as I did. Too tall for our age, too awkward, too different. Cody was doomed from the beginning to be on the outskirts of adolescent society. Sandy blonde hair and pleading blue eyes—a puppy who knew it was about to be kicked, but still couldn’t comprehend how that might feel. Or why.

Rumors, mental torment, rejection: we made certain that Cody knew he was unwelcome. And I played along every second of the way—played the role of the bully that I so hated (so feared), and yet anything was better than being in Cody’s place. More than once, I looked down upon him (from so high upon my crumbling pedestal) and felt pity. But more than that, I felt shame. Shame for my actions and for the person those actions were transforming me into. I was scared. Scared of being lonely.

Knowing what I do now, I should have expected how this farce would end.

Within months, I was just as scorned an outcast as Cody. The thing was, however, that I didn’t know why. I felt I had done nothing to deserve such a casting aside; I had done everything they wanted, everything they did! Why throw me out now? Why turn away?

I was alone.

Days dragged; grades dragged down. By the end of the year, I held nothing above a D. By all rights, I should have been held back, forced to repeat my year of hell. Yet if there was any mercy left in my world, it was that this was not the case. I was allowed to pass, and I stepped into the summer empty and far too bitter for my young years.

Not all was bad, of course. My parents were supportive and loving, though my father had a temper that often sent me into hiding. By this time, my father the soldier was no longer being sent overseas, so he became a more constant presence at home (for both the good and bad, at the time). I had my dogs, my toys, my games; I had my imagination, my writing, my books. I spent more time escaping the world than I did accepting it: my closest friends lived in forests; dabbled in sorcery; hobnobbed with Merlin and Arthur in Camelot; battled fiercely; loved even moreso. Stories, writing, made more sense. The characters of those worlds were kinder, in that they did not leave me to my solitude (not that they had a choice). Their lives meant more to me than my own, which, by comparison, was bleak and boring.

Needless to say (yet said anyway), there were not many I trusted in those days. To a large degree, there remain few people that I trust. My friends are few and close; large groups well up within me mixed feelings of anger, fear, and aggravation. I despise those who hide behind their sham personalities—perhaps in large part because I despise the person I almost became. Fifteen years later, and I still find it difficult to open up to new people in a way that allows for the formation of lasting relationships. Where once I feared solitude, I have now learned to embrace it. Even to love it. Those who know me understand my oddities and, I would like to hope, accept them. Those who know me not understand me not, and I am not bothered by that fact one bit. In the years between then and now, I have experienced much, lost much, gained much.

However, there is one important part of my life that cannot be understated in any way. One person whom I loved more strongly than I have ever loved before or since. A connection so strong that it became an actual part of who I am, affecting me in much the same way as my own thoughts and feelings tend to do.

Independence Day, 2001: I am the child of an X-Ray Technician, a friendly woman who could charm a spider out of its meal (pity the poor fly). With me heavy-footed in tow, my mother attends a Fourth of July party held by a cohort of her fellow hospital employees. The house was owned by someone obviously well-off, as the backyard stretched on for miles and housed an impressive child’s playhouse (it wound up into the trees and down onto the earth; replete with electricity and wood floors). I’d never seen anything so large and appealing to my child’s hyperactive sense of play, and I wanted nothing more than to start climbing its sides so that I might claim it for myself. However, other children had arrived first; they crawled over the house like ants on an apple core, screaming and scampering about in their busy ant-lives. It was surprisingly easy to suppress my desires; I stayed close to my mother’s heels.

Melanie, I want you to meet Mrs. Kati…”

I looked up at the kindly woman, her hair red like mine. It was the first time I had really met another redhead up-close (I am the mutant gene in my family). She seemed nice, friendly. I liked her, though I was still shy. However, as an only child, I was used to being introduced to a coterie of adults wherever my parents took me. That we were meeting this “Kati” was nothing novel. I knew how to be a polite child.

and her daughter Alyssa.”

At Kati’s knees, about eye-level with me, was what I have long considered to be my “twin.” The only one I will ever have. Red hair, amber eyes, round cheeks smothered with freckles—Alyssa and I were nearly identical, despite our differing parentage. Immediately, I was entranced. All of my fears disappeared for a moment; all of my doubts. She looked at me in a way that, I would later come to learn, was wholly accepting of all that I was and all that I could ever be. Even that young, Alyssa was the sort of person who accepted all people, regardless of who they were or how they treated her. Spit in her eye and she would probably just wipe it away, still smiling.

This is not to say that she was immune to social pressures, but rather…she just knew how to shrug them off. To me, that is the greatest superpower a person can claim.

From that very first moment, I was hooked. Alyssa was my drug, and I always needed more. We were inseparable; emotionally bound. Everywhere we went, people asked if we were sisters. After a while, I started to say “yes” to make things easier. It wasn’t too far off the truth, anyway. Alyssa was the closest I had ever had to a sibling. My twin.

As we grew, our resemblance to one another dimmed somewhat. Her hair lightened while mine stayed dark auburn; she stayed short while I became tall. Six months older than me, and yet I could easily lean an elbow on her head—to Alyssa’s ultimate frustration. But still we shared an important trait: creativity. No day was spent together without our imaginations running rampant. Whether we were fighting off flocks of hungry gryphons in her backyard or travelling to the far-away village to rescue a fallen friend (AKA the park), our minds never stopped creating. When we were together, the power of our creativity intensified a thousand fold.

But…there was still a darkness within me. One that threatened to destroy this precious place I had found. A place where I belonged, truly and fully.

Yet again, I had found myself in a group of people who only accepted those who fell in line with what they believed to be in the right. I worked hard to make sure that I always lived up to expectations, going above and beyond to be liked by them—after all, they lived on my cul-de-sac; it was difficult to escape them, and I did not want to be alone.

The first time I brought Alyssa—who lived across town—into this group of friends, tension thickened like an early winter fog. Alyssa—unashamed of who she was and never one to pretend—was Alyssa. Weird, crazy, hilarious Alyssa. I would never insult her by calling her “normal.” She was anything but, and that was why she was so special. She embraced her non-normality like a crown; draped it over herself like the most beautiful of cloaks.

We don’t want you to bring her around anymore,” my friends told me when she had departed for home. “She’s too weird.”

I remember a sinking feeling in my chest at the words. They didn’t like Alyssa? How could they not like her? She was amazing! She was beautiful! She was my twin!

Yeah, I don’t like her much either,” was what I said.

May I be damned for the lie.

Two weeks passed, and I did not call Alyssa. I resolved that, in order to keep my friends, I would forget about her. I would pretend we had never met. In that moment, those others meant more to me for reasons I still don’t completely comprehend. Inside, I was falling. My anxieties began to grow once more—something I had not felt since Alyssa and I had met. The loneliness crept upon me. I was afraid again.

Only this time, I understood that I was afraid for the right reasons.

Two weeks passed, and I snapped. I begged my mother to drive me to Alyssa’s house—a twenty-minute trek—and when I arrived, I threw myself at the girl’s feet, out of my mind under the crushing weight of my guilt. I cried; I apologized; I begged for forgiveness. But in the back of my mind, I knew there was no way she could forgive what I had done. After all, who was I, anyway, to expect any different? I was nothing. Just a pathetic human who abandoned those dearest to me—who joined in the torment of others more pathetic than me—just to keep friends who didn’t give a damn about me. I didn’t deserve her forgiveness, her friendship, but I craved it. I needed it.

Without it, I knew the loneliness would engulf me completely.

What are you talking about, Melanie?” she said, warm hand on my shoulder. “It’s good to see you. How have you been?”

How? How could she be so kind? So accepting? I still don’t understand it. But even if I lack understanding, I do not lack appreciation. I do not lack love. I had wandered away, but my twin knew that I would be back. She had trusted me.

Trust. What a strange concept.

Trust had led me into despair from a young age.

Trust had abandoned me when I needed it most.

Trust had eluded me when I turned away from reality.

Yet it was trust that saved me. Embraced me.

Alyssa’s trust. Alyssa’s embrace.

There aren’t enough days in the time remaining our planet to every express my gratitude or love for that beautiful, selfless girl. Not enough words. Hell, I doubt the emotion I feel when I think of her even exists.

I only know that I will never forget her; I will always miss her.

It happened early in the morning on September 29th. The year was 2009: I had just graduated from high school that past May; had just turned eighteen that past May. We were living in New Mexico at that point, and I was house-and-dog-sitting for one of my mother’s close friends and co-workers.

5:30 AM. I always get up early; it’s been ingrained in me since I was young (since my father used to hide walkie-talkies under my pillow and wake me up). The two giant labs I have been set to watch are clamoring at my feet, eager for attention and, more importantly, breakfast.

6:00 AM. It’s my day off. I look around the kitchen, feeling slightly ashamed (though probably not enough) that I have left my dishes a mess in the sink. All week I told myself “Tuesday is my day off, I’ll do them then.” My phone rang then: my mother, calling to say good-morning and to see how the dogs were doing. I used the break as an excuse to set the daunting task aside once more.

7:00 AM. Dogs fed, coffee drank, morning rolling along, I stood once more before the sink, ready to get the deed over and done with so that I would have one less worry for the day. It was at that moment that my phone rang again. I’m not sure what it was about that second call that struck me so oddly. I only know that, the moment it began to ring, the moment I looked down at the caller ID to see my mother calling, yet again, that something was wrong. What was worse: I knew exactly what she was going to say.

In 2007, Alyssa was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was sixteen years old. My family had already moved to New Mexico, so we heard the news over the phone from Kati. Kati and her husband Jim are the strong, noble sort. When faced with the news of their youngest daughter’s condition, they did not break down and allow the despair to consume them. Proactively, and bolstered by their strong faith, they set about searching for ways to help Alyssa. To cure her.

I was sixteen, as well, when I first heard the news. It was difficult to fully comprehend at the time, especially since, when I was able to visit her in Colorado (which I did as much as I was able), Alyssa did not act too much different than she had been before. She was still jovial, still carefree…but there was a dark cloud that hovered just beyond sight. We all knew it, but in the early days we did our best to not see it.

Alyssa began chemo, and bit by bit her beautiful red hair began to disappear. She grew weaker, more lethargic. Eventually, her short-term memory began to dim. You could tell her something and she would listen as attentively as ever, but not recall what had been said a few minutes later. Alyssa was aware of this, and she loved to liken herself to Dory from the cartoon movie Finding Nemo. It was a fun game; humor to dull the pain.

And it worked, for a while.

There was one night, early into her sickness, that Alyssa and I were lying in bed during a sleepover (we never much cared about the idea of personal space between us; we were, in fact, the same person in many ways, after all). We talked into the night, about faith, about belief, about love, about anything and everything. We did this quite a bit over the years; there was nothing the two of us could not share. During this talk, the two of us cried together as we shared our doubts: about the future, about God. (I believe that, at the end, Alyssa’s faith was restored; mine never was. Never will be.)

I miss those nights. I never felt so close to anyone as I did with her. She was a part of my, of who I was, of who I am, and in the crucible of that fight—her fight—our bond was forged. And yet…I cannot help but feel guilt.

Guilt for my fears.

Guilt for my avoidance.

Guilt for not being there, in the end.

There was a part of me that refused to accept that Alyssa was dying. Indeed, I even felt vindicated when the doctors reported that her tumor was beginning to shrink. Joyous day! we all thought. Alyssa the fighter! Alyssa the survivor!

It happened through a phone call again. Kati calling, telling us that the first tumor had shrunk, only to make way for dozens more. The sound in her voice…so tired, so defeated. Even as she said, “We’ll keep trying,” I could tell that even she had begun to give up. And how could she not? In spite of everything, our hopes had been dashed to the stones. In spite of their prayers, Alyssa was sicker than ever. In spite of her smiles, Alyssa was dying.

And there was nothing to be done.

In 2008, my grandpa was killed by a drunk driver.

It was early, early in the morning: probably 4:00 or 5:00 AM. Like he did every morning, my grandpa (his granddaughters called him Vavu, Portuguese for grandpa) had woken up, slipped from the bed he shared with his wife of many years, gotten dressed, and stepped outside to prepare his cart for another day of fishing. He had lovingly customized his little wagon—an old, dilapidated-looking thing covered in chipped white paint—to carry an assortment of fishing poles and tackle with a bar that stretched out to hook on the back of his bicycle. Every morning, he hooked up his cart and pedaled the mile distance to Port Hueneme pier where he spent the morning fishing with his homemade lures (seven hooks on a pier line). Whenever I came to visit, he always had an extra bike and pole waiting for me, parked right next to his.

That July morning, when my Vavu began pedaling his bike down the old streets of Port Hueneme (or “Port-who-needs-me” as he lovingly called it at times), he was struck from behind by a van driving 75 MPH down a neighborhood road. According to the police report, he was killed instantly. My Vavu—the man who had dropped out of high school to help support his family, who had survived two tours in Vietnam, who had survived a mine blast, who had helped raise three sons, who had survived a stroke, who had been the gentlest, funniest, and kindest of grandfathers a girl could have—was killed that morning. The driver was never found.

That summer was the first time I drove the fifteen-hour distance to California from our home in New Mexico. I drove because my father could not; I drove alone because he could not be alone. My mother and I stayed strong for him; I set aside my own sorrow to see the trip to its end.

It happened again when we arrived: several of my Vavu’s siblings had arrived—and his mother. My great-grandmother (great Vavo, as I called her). This was the first time I had ever met my great aunts and uncles on my father’s side; they are wonderful people with large hearts.

My Titia Mary moved off to the side as we gathered together in our grief, overcome by her sorrow. I watched as she buried her face in her hands and cried, away from the rest of us. Without question, without thinking, I walked over to her and wrapped her in a hug. I am taller than my Titia—than all of my Vavu’s family, really. (The German blood in my family lines hit me far harder than the Portuguese.) She was surprised at first, but quickly accepted the comfort and cried on my shoulder for as long as she needed. This was the first time we had ever met. And again, I pushed aside my own sorrow to offer what strength I could to those I loved.

It wasn’t until much later in the day, when the tears had faded and the reminiscing was in full swing, that I removed myself from the gathering of my newfound family. In my grandparent’s backyard, I leaned against the side of the house and sunk down to the concrete. Even then, alone, I tried not to feel. But I could not help but pick up my phone and call Alyssa.

Hey, Melanie! How are you?” It was difficult to tell that she had been fighting her cancer for almost a year now; she still sounded so light and happy.

Hey, Alyssa. I’m ok. How are you?”

A pause.

Melanie, what’s wrong?”

It was always amazing how Alyssa could tell when I was in distress. She just knew. I had called to hear her voice, but I hadn’t planned much of anything past that point. I certainly did not plan on burdening her with this new tragedy; she had enough to deal with as it was. And yet…

Melanie? What’s wrong?”

For the first time, I cried. I mourned. I could not hold back the pain any longer. For the first time, I felt the full weight of my loss. My Vavu…dead. My Vavu, the survivor, the warrior, killed. The agony of it all washed over me in that moment as I poured my heart out to my dying friend. Dying, and yet she still had time to listen; to cry with me; to offer what comfort she could.

7:00 AM. So here we are, a little over a year later, standing in a friend’s kitchen. Looking at my dirty dishes. Watching the dogs eat their breakfast with great, hearty bites. The phone rang, and I knew instantly. The phone rang…

Melanie”—my mother was in tears; there was a sense of disbelief in her voice as she spoke—“Melanie, Kati just called me… Alyssa…”

I know.”

Oh god, Melanie…I’m so sorry…”

I stayed silent a moment, trying to gather my thoughts in a mind that was quickly growing numb.

I’m going to Colorado,” I said finally. There was no room for argument in the statement.

Ok,” she said.

I remember The Who’s “Baba O’Reily” playing in the background of my car as I drove back home to gather my things. “Teenage wasteland, it’s only teenage wasteland…” Music had always spoken to me on an innate level, but never so clearly as in that moment. When I was driving up Wolf Creek Pass on my way to Colorado, Alice in Chains’s new album Black Gives Way to Blue had just released that very same day and the station I was listening to had the band on the air as they played every song. Jerry Cantrell, the band’s de facto leader, explained that the album was meant as a tribute to Layne Staley, the original lead singer of the band who had died from an overdose back in the mid-1990s. Thus, every song spoke of heartbreak and loss; every song cut me to my core. If there is such a thing as fate, it was playing in my radio that September day.

Alyssa died in her bed sometime early in the morning on September 29, 2009. Congestive heart failure was the final word, brought on by the cancer eating away at her brain. I would like to hope that she went in relative peace; that she was asleep as the last beats of her heart staggered into silence.

Her parents decided to have a viewing of her body a couple of days later, so that her friends and family might have their final good bye. I helped them set up for it, choosing what drawings and paintings and photos we would display around the casket—a final reminder of the beautiful artist that she had been. I remember stepping into the room where her casket lay open and telling myself that I could not look at her, not yet, not until I had finished making everything perfect. The pictures had to be set up; people needed to see them. It didn’t really make sense, but it needed to be done. There was no other reason.

Finally, I forced myself to turn and look at the preserved corpse of my best friend. She was pale, much paler than she had ever been in life; her eyes were closed as if in sleep; atop her head was one of her ridiculously fuzzy hats that she had so adored. It is a cliché to say, but Alyssa looked at peace. However, it was the wrong kind of peace. As I reached down to cup her cheek, the first tears began to fall as my hand came into contact with the cold, formaldehyde stiffness of her skin. It was so very wrong.

I stayed there, beside her, for as long as I could. My hand never left the contours of her face; the heat of my body desperately tried to warm her lifeless skin, as if that might make some kind of difference. In the end, as my sorrow poured out and I whispered to her eternally closed eyes, I noticed that there was a small smirk on her face. As if, even in death, she knew a joke that she was just dying to tell (pun intended, in the best of ways).

I smiled.

It would have been easier, I suppose, to have never met Alyssa. If I had not met her, I never would have had to feel the hollowness that continues to live, to this day, within the depths of my aching heart.

When Alyssa died, she took a piece of me with her. Not that that piece ever truly belonged to me. Indeed, it was a piece of myself that, I earnestly believe, had been waiting for her to enter my life from the day I was born. It was a piece that needed someone like her to help shape all the crooked pieces lurking around it.

The scars of my past remain, but Alyssa taught me how to face them. She taught me that, despite my bitterness and despite the wickedness of humanity, trust can still be had. It is still no easy thing to give, and yet I take my journey one step at a time—one person at a time.

Yes, it would have been easier had I never met Alyssa.

But it also would have been a much more difficult journey without her.

Thank you, my twin. I will never forget you.

I am a freelance writer and historian working on writing and publishing my first book.

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