In high school, Lily was a cute, bubbly girl. I knew her from the born-again Christian youth group to which we both belonged, called Young Life. Kids in Young Life were their own clique of “good kids.” They met monthly in kids’ homes, sang songs together, went on campouts together, and generally tried to channel the energy and humor of youth into something that didn’t involve substance abuse, depression, and lawbreaking, but instead, involved God and Jesus.
We grew up in Orange County, California. There was a lot of wholesome whooping it up. There was a lot of guitar playing and sing-alongs. There were a lot of Praise the Lords.
“Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy is the people whose God is the Lo-or-o-ord!” went one of our favorite songs. We would clap together while singing it. It was a bright and perky song, and it was great fun to sing.
Lily was the cutest of the bunch, I always thought. A few times, I got the look. You know the one, the one that says, Maybe I like you. But nothing ever happened between us because, in my mind, she wasn’t good enough for me. Through the years, it turned out that nobody was ever good enough for me. But hey, that’s a whole other story.
After high school, my born-againism faded. There was so much that born-againism prohibited me from experiencing. For one thing, sex. For another, poets like Dylan and Plath and, on the music side, Beck. For still another, thinking for myself. For still still another, doubt.
Happy, happy, happy, happy, now that’s an interesting subject. Within ten years of leaving born-againism, I was much happier. To be specific, I was happier using my own logic to decide whether something was wrong or not, like abortion, or watching violent movies, or whether all indigenous people should be converted to Christianity. I was happier sleeping in on Sunday mornings. I was happier reading pagan literature in bed.
Decades passed. You can live several lives in that amount of time, and I certainly did. I was first a journalist, then a New Yorker, then an uncle, then a famous magician, then “a guy who never married.” I had so many different identities. I was political. I was an exercise fiend. I was a guy who had been with his girlfriend for 14 years and had never married her. I was a world traveler who published accounts of his journeys in the New York Daily News: http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/travel/palau-splendid-view-pacific-paradise-article-1.290314
Then Facebook comes along. This weird free network puts you in touch with people you haven’t thought of in years. And one day, we all “friend” Lily. I was so happy to see her smiling face, which still lit up any room she was in. I started having chats with her, and discovered that she still lived in the area. One day, I called her.
“We should get together for coffee,” I said. “Catch up.”
“Sure,” she said.
And then she popped the question.
“How are you with the Lord?”
Ugh God, she wasn’t still into that, was she?
“I’m not,” I said.
“Oh, I’m sorry, what happened?”
“Jeez, it’s a long story. I’ll tell you when we get together, if you like.”
I wasn’t interested in being converted, that was for sure. But if all she wanted to do was hear the story, I could do that.
In the end, we never got together. In June, I read on Facebook that Lily was dead. I was stunned. She was far too young. I scrolled through her Facebook page, but nobody was being specific about what had transpired. She died around March 1, but her friends didn’t seem to have been invited to the funeral, if there even was one. A memorial had been promised, but that had fizzled out, too.
There were so many mysteries. To me, it seemed to reek of bad family. I mean, what kind of family wouldn’t invite friends to a funeral? There are so many ways for families to be dysfunctional.
Last night, I went to Lily’s wake. It was held five months after she passed, at a sports bar in Newport Beach.
It seemed like a weird place to celebrate someone’s life, more like an Irish wake, with the dark lighting and all the alcohol flowing. The young waitresses wore tight black shorts and skimpy black tops and had lots of weird tattoos and sneered. For the wake, there were lots of middle-aged women, all chatting, laughing, and raising a glass to Lily.
“How did you know Lily?” one of them asked me.
“I knew her in high school,” I said.
“Did you know her as an adult?”
“I hadn’t seen her since high school, but in the last year, we were planning on getting together. It never happened, though.”
I listened hard, trying to figure out how Lily died. It was weird. I wondered if she had died of something that some consider shameful, like AIDS. For example, one of my friends has rectal cancer but finds it embarrassing to talk about, so he just leaves it at “cancer.” But you have to die of something, and nobody was talking about what the cause was in Lily’s case. Finally, I leaned over and asked a woman named April in hushed tones.
“So how did she die? Cancer?”
April locked onto my eyes. She pursed her lips and shook her head no. She became very quiet. I leaned in even closer. I waited expectantly, but she didn’t answer, she just started telling the story.
On a convention trip, April had roomed with Lily. Watching her day in and day out for several days, she quickly realized.
April recounted the conversation she had with Lily that brought it all to a head.
“Lily, you’re going to kill yourself if you keep drinking and doing pills the way you are. I’ve seen this so many times,” April said.
Turns out that April has worked for years as a substance-abuse counselor at a local hospital.
“You’ve got to promise me,” April said, “that you’re going to stop tonight.”
“Okay, okay, I know it’s bad for me, I promise I’ll stop,” Lily said. At this point, Lily was in tears.
April called Lily the next morning.
“Hllo?” Lily said.
And April lost it, because she could hear the pills in Lily’s voice. This wasn’t just a patient, this was her best friend.
“You promised me!” April said.
“I know,” Lily said, “but I had insomnia last night, I had restless legs.”
And that’s how it was every time Lily made a promise to April.
Throughout the evening, I heard other stories from other people.
From a blonde with a determined mouth: “Lily loved my husband. He was her knight in shining armor. We would go on those conventions, and we would go down to the Jacuzzi and she would drink, and it would get to the point where she couldn’t drag herself out of the Jacuzzi. And my husband would always pull her out and help her back to her room. And she was always so thankful, it was, like, ‘Henry, you’re my knight in shining armor.’”
From a woman with long grey hair who was sitting at what seemed to be the alcoholics’ table: “Yeah, I met her here, at this bar, when I moved down the street seven years ago. She met us here every Tuesday for seven years.”
From a brunette: “Oh man, she could do great Blow Jobs—you know, the kind of shot drink where you can’t use your hands? She was the best at Blow Jobs.”
Happy, happy, happy, happy.
You can see a video of anonymous stupid girls doing Blow Jobs at 7:50 here:
April told me about another conversation she had with Lily just a few months before she died. April and her grown daughter were at a party that Lily was at. April’s daughter, who had known Lily since she was ten, was bartending, and her daughter came up to her.
“Mom, I think Lily is dying,” the daughter said. “She looks so bad, with her eyes sunken in and everything and her skin translucent.”
So they walked up to Lily and April’s daughter says: “Lily, you look terrible. What’s wrong with you? I think you’re dying.”
Lily immediately burst into tears.
“I know something’s wrong with me,” Lily said, “but I don’t have the money to see a doctor.”
It was a strange thing to say, because she was working for AAA at the time. I can’t believe that a full-time employee at AAA doesn’t have medical insurance.
“I work for a doctor,” the daughter said, “and I know I can get him to see you for free.”
But Lily turned down all offers.
“I don’t want to do that,” she said, “I just don’t want to do that.”
Remembering back to high school, I recalled that Lily had had scoliosis and had to have a rod surgically implanted in her back. Perhaps the painkillers were originally prescribed to treat that. Perhaps she still had lots of pain. Perhaps the alcohol was another form of medication.
Suddenly in April, people were notified that Lily had been admitted to the hospital. April came to see her, and when she entered the room, she saw a woman who was a shell of her former self lying in the bed. Lily’s hands and feet were in restraints so that she couldn’t leave the bed and look for alcohol. Worst of all, Lily had incredibly sad eyes. Almost immediately, though, April was approached by a friend named Samantha and told to leave. April was escorted out with the help of several nurses while Lily kicked against her restraints, perhaps to object wordlessly to ejecting her best friend from the room.
“Samantha is sitting right over there,” April said, pointing at a steely blonde sitting at the alcoholics’ table. “When I leave, I’m going to give her a piece of my mind. She had no right to turn away all these people who loved Lily. They stole our goodbyes from us.”
The hospital visit was on a Tuesday. By Saturday, Lily was dead. Her friends never did give a name to Lily’s cause of death, but it was clear by the description. It was cirrhosis. It was liver failure. Or, as one family member kept telling people, “liver cancer.” In essence, it was like a cancer, relentlessly eating away at Lily.
I told April about my phone conversation with her about “the Lord,” and April was shocked.
“I never ever ever heard her talk about ‘the Lord,’” April said. “You mean she was a born-again Christian?”
“Yeah, we all were.”
“And she implied to you that she was still one?”
“My God, that’s so hypocritical what she said to you. It makes me mad.”
Everything had been turned around, and I told them about it.
“You know, when I came here tonight, I thought I was going to a memorial for a woman who might have died a virgin,” I said. “I mean, I heard she’d never married and never had children, so maybe she just followed that born-again stuff to its logical extreme. And she even told one of her high school friends that she was a virgin.”
But April just shook her head solemnly, an ironic twinkle in her eye.
“No, trust me, she wasn’t a virgin.”
It was in that moment that I realized what had bothered me about that song Happy all these years. It was the enforced happiness. It was the denial of any other feelings except happiness, with an emphasis on denial.
When she left, April passed by the alcoholics’ table and had a brief conversation with Samantha, who looked like a hard woman with no illusions and no pity. Since I knew the confrontation was coming, I’d had time to reposition myself so I could hear it.
“We were all wondering why none of Lily’s friends were allowed to see her in her last days in the hospital,” April said calmly.
“Well, it was Lily’s wishes,” Sam said sadly.
“Well you know, all of her friends think it was you.”
“They think it was you who blocked all of us from seeing her.”
“Well, I don’t give a shit.”
Sam began to get visibly hot under the collar.
“And you know, I think it was you, too.”
“Well,” Sam said, her voice rising, “I. Don’t. Give. A shit.”
That’s when April walked away. At that point, Sam turned back to her alcoholic friends, clearly pissed. She took a few sips from her red wine, trying to calm down. Finally, she emptied the glass in a single gulp.
“What?” one of the friends said. “What’s wrong?”
“You see that woman April?” Sam said, pointing at her as she walked out the exit.
“Well, they told me she was a troublemaker.”
“That woman over there?”
“Yeah, what a bitch.”
Strangely enough, I believe Sam. It would be just like Lily to block her friends. She didn’t want her friends to see her die from an excess of Blow Jobs. It would have been humiliating. She wanted to just disappear. And that’s kind of what she did.