On March 18th, 2015, a close friend of mine passed away after 25 years of illness and pain. Her sense of humour remained, to the end, incorruptible. This is my recollection of her in some of the best and worst moments of the time we spent together.
“The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.”
— from Everything Is Going to be All Right, by Derek Mahon
It’s uncommon to remember exactly how you met someone. Sometimes, we remember specific meetings because they’re unusual or because we come to love the person we’ve met.
Meeting people for the first time often falls into the background; irrelevant in many ways, once the moment has passed. The ones you remember are rare and they are special.
I met Aileen at a screening of Harry Potter on a school trip in Winter 2002.
Taking my seat in a row near the back, I somehow got talking to the girl sitting directly in front of me. She said I seemed familiar to her, and I said I had the same feeling. We spent a few minutes going back and forth, trying to work out if we had mutual friends, acquaintances or experience. We never worked it out. I’m not a big believer in fate- but maybe there’s something to it. Maybe she was just destined to end up in my life and I in hers. Who knows?
From that day on, Aileen would migrate from her classroom to mine for lunch. She was, first and foremost, a shock to the system. At times it was awkward to talk with her because she was so upfront and honest about her experiences. Her life was a pottered history of discomfort and pain- I had nothing to compare it to.
Aileen was diagnosed with a brain tumour at eight months and wasn’t expected to survive- but she did. There was a reoccurrence before she turned 10 and, suffering the chemotherapy to defy the odds, she made it. These huge truths were among she first things she told me, a naïve and innocent child of 12.
The idea of a young person being so ill startled me. I could never work out how she was pretty much always in a good mood when it seemed to me she was dealt a hard hand. It would take me years to work out what she and Churchill already knew: to endure is to conquer.
Once Aileen decided you were her friend, you didn’t really have a whole lot of choice in the matter. She was polite and friendly to everyone- but her genuine friendship and loyalty was a gift to the few and not the many.
Aileen was quick to laugh, easy to wind up and loud as hell. It took us a while to build a group of friends, but we managed it, all of us different and trying to claw our way into being teenagers without dying of embarrassment along the way.
Through the first three years of school, Aileen and I were separated in different classes, rarely sharing lesson time. But early in the morning, she would be among the first to school for gossip and was ever present at lunch times.
Perhaps the funniest and most frustrating thing about Aileen was her devilish love of the fabled purple snack. Early in the morning, Aileen would cajole other students to go to the shop and purchase a small number of purple snacks for her. Not the pink ones, not the yellow ones- just the purple. She had a group of people essentially lined up to do her bidding and she knew exactly where to find them at 8.30am. From what I remember, nobody ever turned her down.
It was frustrating because Aileen had significant health concerns- we pointed out to her that it probably wasn’t good for her. She didn’t care: her love affair with purple snacks was simply all-consuming.
Needless to say, given her history with a brain tumour, Aileen’s head was a constant risk: accidental whacks to the head simply weren’t an option. To her delight, this meant she couldn’t participate in PE. I think now that Aileen would have been great craic on a sports field, given her sense of humour, but at the time I was busy trying to skive off PE myself and didn’t think about it. I firmly believe her ferocity would have led her to great success in women’s rugby.