September 29, 2009
Melanie Pimentel Toth
Copyright 2018 by Melanie Pimentel Toth
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
what I do now, I should have expected how this farce would end.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
I want you to meet Mrs. Kati…”
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.
her daughter Alyssa.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
was still a darkness within me. One that threatened to destroy this
precious place I had found. A place where I belonged, truly and
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.
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.
don’t want you to bring her around anymore,” my friends
told me when she had departed for home. “She’s too
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!
I don’t like her much either,” was what I said.
I be damned for the lie.
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
this time, I understood that I was afraid for the right reasons.
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.
it, I knew the loneliness would engulf me completely.
are you talking about, Melanie?” she said, warm hand on my
shoulder. “It’s good to see you. How have you been?”
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.
What a strange concept.
had led me into despair from a young age.
had abandoned me when I needed it most.
had eluded me when I turned away from reality.
it was trust that saved me. Embraced me.
trust. Alyssa’s embrace.
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
only know that I will never forget her; I will always miss her.
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
it worked, for a while.
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
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.
for my fears.
for my avoidance.
for not being there, in the end.
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!
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
there was nothing to be done.
2008, my grandpa was killed by a drunk driver.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alyssa. I’m ok. How are you?”
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…
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.
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…
mother was in tears; there was a sense of disbelief in her voice as
she spoke—“Melanie, Kati just called me… Alyssa…”
god, Melanie…I’m so sorry…”
stayed silent a moment, trying to gather my thoughts in a mind that
was quickly growing numb.
going to Colorado,” I said finally. There was no room for
argument in the statement.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
it would have been easier had I never met Alyssa.
it also would have been a much more difficult journey without her.
you, my twin. I will never forget you.
I am a freelance writer and historian working on
publishing my first book.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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