This is a guest post from Aisling Twomey. Aisling hails from Ireland but lives in London and works in finance. An unrelenting nerd, she loves dogs, yoga and fitness. She has occasionally gotten so immersed in a book that she misses her Tube stop. Follow her on Twitter for pictures of puppies, puns and general sass.
On March 18th last year, in a hospital bed in Ireland, one of my best friends passed away. She was 25. Diagnosed with a brain tumor at eight months old, Aileen fought for a quarter of a century before her war ended. She barely had a chance at life but she used the card she got dealt to live the life she did have with a resounding courage that I still can’t comprehend.
Aileen and I first bonded over books- namely, Harry Potter. She was one of the first friends I made in secondary school and we stuck together while we negotiated the move from childhood to adulthood, via the Teenage Years of Embarrassment. One of her favourite books was War of the Buttons by Louis Pergaud and in later years she remembered it really well even when her memory faded. It was the first book I read in an effort to bring her back to life in my mind- a story of rampaging children fighting a seemingly silly war with far-reaching consequences. The book stayed with me: even the smartest of us have big lessons to learn before we can properly grow up.
Aileen, of course, learned too many hard lessons and grew up too fast, but her sense of humour was untouched by it. She loved the glory of The Little Prince, but by contrast hated the heavier Watership Down– possibly because she was forced to read it in her drama class and grew to loathe it with a fiery passion. It’s on my ‘to read’ list, but I anticipate hating it just out of sympathy for a friend. Aileen lost her sight after one too many illnesses and reoccurrences, which made reading hard. From that point on, she grew to enjoy audiobooks and would often ask for book recommendations and tell me about great stories she’d read.
It made me sad that sometimes, my more eccentric or obscure book choices were ones she couldn’t share, or had to wait a long time for an audiobook version to become available. For her birthday one year, I gave her The 13 and a Half Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers- a comic satire about a travelling blue bear, accompanied by beautiful illustrations and full of whimsical humour. She adored it. I hadn’t read it in ten years, but again returned to it in her absence to find that I love it even more now: each page reminds me of her booming laugh and the images push her to the front of my mind.
After she died, I was lost, lonely and angry. We all knew she was sick and we all knew time wasn’t on her side- but nothing in the world can prepare you for the moment you sit in a hospital room, tell someone you love them, and hold their hand while they go ahead without you. The thing is, Aileen would have seen it as the next big adventure; Dumbledore was one of her favorite literary characters and she was always determined to do as much as possible. On a long bus trip a few weeks after she died, I opened Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and fell in love with a woman on a journey into the quiet parts of the world and into herself. The book helped me realise that grieving is a process and the process is never easy, no matter what efforts we make to confront it.
Saying goodbye is never easy. In the 9 months after Aileen’s death, I read over 40 books, and every single one of them brought her to mind in some way. They ranged from fantasy to romance (I could hear her in my head saying “Why on earth are you reading that rubbish?!” which I must say, ruined the atmosphere somewhat), to historical fiction and feminism. I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods and laughed so hard I cried- the sense of misadventure brought on a type of nostalgia; it was a bittersweet read. Aileen would have swallowed all of his other writing immediately after reading this one, I’m sure of it.
Aileen would have loved Diana Gabaldon’s richly researched historical fantasy in Outlander, and Coralie Bickford Smith’s The Fox and the Star. She didn’t have the chance to read them and immerse herself in those universes. Gabaldon in particular was an escape for me last year, her rich Highlands pseudo-history letting me run to another world for solace when I got sad.
I don’t believe she ever read Caitlin Moran- but the similarities between Aileen and Moran are striking. Namely, Aileen didn’t much give a thought to what anyone thought of her- she was for life and living and doing it loud and proud. Saying goodbye to Aileen has been a voyage of discovery in pages new and old, torn and digital, quick and easy, long and challenging. A year on, every time I pick up a book, I find a little bit of my friend inside.