When I was a kid, I wanted my first car to be a Ford Focus. I dreamed of whipping my cool, worldly friends around my tiny Texas town in a 4-cylinder sedan, blasting all the music that didn’t play on my parents’ favorite Christian radio station. The reason I wanted a Focus was simple: When my cousin Amanda used to come visit my family from Oklahoma, she was always driving her silver car that she had nicknamed the “Pimpin’ Focus.” I’d almost forgotten about my Focus dreams until last week, when Amanda died of cancer.
My mom is the youngest of her four siblings by a decade, which means that most of my cousins were having children of their own while I was still in diapers. Amanda was a teenager when I started kindergarten, which made her the perfect mix of young and relatable, and mature and cool.
Amanda was the first person I can remember really admiring. She used to call me “Stumpy” because I was short and round and had a tendency to get grouchy between meals. Once, when she came to visit us, I was sick with a stomach bug, and Amanda, ever the athletic trainer, had the perfect solution. She mixed orange Gatorade with just a little bit of water, and I spent the night on the couch while she and my mom watched Napoleon Dynamite together. My mom thought the movie was too inappropriate for my youthful wiles, so I pretended to be asleep. But Amanda knew that I was faking it. At one point, she caught me with my eyes open and winked. Now, when I’m hungover, I still crave orange Gatorade.
Amanda had been sick before this year, but she’d always recovered. Even though I knew for almost a month before she passed that she wasn’t going to get better this time, it didn’t stop me from hoping for a miracle. Amanda was so, so ridiculously funny. She could make anyone laugh. She could make anyone feel better. She couldn’t die before turning 35.
Before my twin brothers were born, my mom was hospitalized with pregnancy complications. Amanda and her sister, my cousin Stephanie, drove the Pimpin’ Focus down to Texas to entertain me and my sisters. They took me to get my first (and last) manicure. I chose a Kelly green shade that should be banned from nail salons forever. We went shopping for summer clothes at Old Navy. All the while, Amanda played the cool pop radio stations that my parents never let us tune into.
Eventually, though, Amanda didn’t come to visit us as much. My sisters and I proudly manned the guestbook at her wedding as she married her high school sweetheart: a tall, handsome man named Josh. I had never been to a wedding. Amanda had never looked prettier. When I found out she was pregnant with her son Jordon, I begged my mom to let me take a Greyhound bus to her baby shower. I was ten, so it was probably good that she said no. When Amanda and Josh moved to Hawaii for his job, I oohed and aahed at all of her photos of beaches and palm trees. She was far away, but I always assumed she’d come back. I always assumed she would watch me graduate from Georgetown. I assumed she’d get to see that I wasn’t so Stumpy anymore.
Amanda and Josh ended up in Seattle, Washington, where Jordon goes to a Catholic school and loves to play with his dog. In the summer of 2018, Amanda came back to Oklahoma for another cousin’s graduation. I didn’t get to see her because I had chosen to spend the summer in D.C. I know it wasn’t my fault that I missed her that last time. I know that I couldn’t predict that she would be gone by March. But I still regret it just a little bit, and I always will.
There are a million things I thought Amanda would be around for. I could’ve spent every single moment of my life talking to her, and I would still have so much to say. Life is so unpredictable and short and cruel sometimes, but we can’t sit around every moment waiting for someone we love to die. We can choose to worry constantly about whether this will be our last text message or phone call, or we can choose to focus on the moment with our full energy. Amanda always chose the latter.
There’s nothing you can say to make it better when someone dies young. Today, there is another child without his mother, a husband without his wife, parents without their daughter, an aunt without her niece. I am without the first hero I ever knew. If I started thinking about how hard the last few days of Amanda’s life were, I would probably never get out of bed again. I have to make a conscious choice with every single breath I take to remember Amanda as she was before she got sick: the loudest person in the room, the best at diffusing tension with ridiculous jokes, the proud owner of the Pimpin’ Focus.
My first car didn’t end up being a Focus. It was a $300 clunker that didn’t have air-conditioning and ended up in the junkyard shortly after I left for college, but I still have some good memories in it. The story of my first car might be the simplest example of the hardest thing to learn in life: Even the best-laid plans go awry. My childhood hero did not get to see me finish college or sign the guestbook at my wedding or come to my baby shower. My shiny, silver Focus turned out to be a rusty Mitsubishi with questionable power steering. But if I spent the rest of my life mourning my lost plans, I would miss out on a lot. Instead, I can spend my time trying to make people laugh, and I can smile at every Ford Focus that passes by.