Five years ago as of tomorrow, Esther died. She was my friend, and I miss her deeply. It's rare for a day to go by when I don't think of her.
Esther died six days after September 11, 2001; I got the news a week after that, when the world was seeming crazy and unpredictable enough as it was. After September 11, I was wondering what was going to come next; we all were, I think. Nuclear bombs over San Francisco or biological weapons in the toothpaste would have come as less of a shock. It was my first year in grad school at Berkeley. I left my morning class, Programming Language Design, planning on checking email and then going for lunch before my Operating Systems class. I sat down to check email in my office and there was an email from Marge, my former boss when I had worked at the Helpdesk at Wellesley. (Esther had worked for the Helpdesk, too.) I opened it, I read it, I had to read it again and again to believe what it said. The email was forwarded from Hannah, another Wellesley alum who'd worked for IS. It said that Esther had died last week, while looking for her lost cat one evening; she had stopped her car on an incline, left it in neutral, she went out in front of it, and it rolled over her. If I'd been reading the same story in a newspaper, a good samaritan would have come along before it was too late and pulled her out of harm's way. Instead, I was reading it in an email, there was no fortunate coincidence, and my friend was dead. My officemates were in the office with me, but somehow I couldn't tell them what had just happened. I wrote back to Hannah and Marge to ask if they were sure this really happened, as if doing so would somehow change the past. I forwarded the email to a few places and people, as if keeping my hands busy on the keyboard would help. Finally I got up and stumbled across the campus to get food; I'd lost all appetite for anything else, so I had frozen yogurt for lunch and then went to Operating Systems; I was in my chair for the entire 70-minute lecture, doubt I heard a word the professor said.
Esther was my first friend at Wellesley; for a while, she was my best friend. We met in the spring of 1996, when she was a sophomore and I was fifteen, in my second semester of taking classes at Wellesley. I'd been following Public and the other folders on Wellesley's Bulletin system (a primitive message board program running on a VAX cluster that was already obsolete then, yet had a fanatical following among students who loved and hated it) since the fall, but I didn't have the nerve to start posting in the spring. When I did, I lost my inhibitions fast, and didn't hesitate to both answer questions on Helpdesk (a folder for computing questions) and chastise those, both on Public and on Helpdesk, who had failed to RTFM. There were a few people who, I guess, resented that somebody might be so audacious to suggest that they should read documentation before asking a question, and moreover resented the fact that the advice was coming from someone who they saw as being outside the community (the "T1" prefix before my username, and the fact that I didn't show up in the WHOIS directory at the time, marked me as an outsider). On Public, people started trying to figure who I was; someone posted saying that I was a high school student from Wellesley (which wasn't exactly true since I never took any classes at the high school, but was close enough, since I was taking classes at Wellesley by virtue of a program that allowed Wellesley High students access to college courses); other people, not realizing that I was also a Wellesley student, posted indignant responses wondering how it was that a high school student could have "hacked" into the system. Esther, who I'd never met or even talked to online before, came to my defense and explained that I was taking classes at Wellesley, and not only that, that I was a very good student. I was confused as to how she knew this exactly, but grateful -- ten years ago, I wasn't quite as used to being flamed online as I am now. I ended up exchanging emails with Esther after that and found out that she knew who I was because she was friendly with Lyn Turbak, whose Data Structures class I was taking that semester, and he had mentioned my name to her. We exchanged more emails and then one day, she used the "Talk" command on Sallie to invite me to chat. Eventually, she invited me over to her room in Tower to meet her pet hedgehog. We were friends after that, and from then until December 1998, when she completed her work at Wellesley and moved to Seattle to work at Microsoft, we saw each other often and chatted via Talk sessions more often.
Esther, more than anybody else, led me out of my anti-social orientation, and it was because of her that I was able to see that I could form meaningful relationships with others, even people a couple of years older than me. And besides that, she was fun to be around and always had other interesting people around her, whether at Wellesley or MIT. We were both bulletin addicts, both members of the Lyn Turbak fan club, and I followed in her footsteps by working for IS and working on Wilbur, the student web server, when I got the chance. My first semester first year, we took the intro computer architecture class together and I remember the yellow bus she drew for the poster for her lab project (we all paired up to build different components of a machine; guess which one hers was.) The semester after that, she went to Prague. Over the summer, I went to New York with her to pick up her car from her parents there, and we went to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The fall of my sophomore year (her last semester at Wellesley), she took care of my hamster, Nibbles, when my floor voted to reject my having a pet, and she organized a Thanksgiving dinner in Simpson West that I went to. The second-to-last time I saw her, over Christmas break in 1998, we saw "The Prince of Egypt" in Framingham for no adequately explored reason. After she moved, we fell out of touch a bit; she did come to Berkeley with her boyfriend when I was living there in summer 1999, and we all went up in the Campanile. (That was when you could still go in the Campanile.) When I think of her, I think of nights in Simpson West spent baking and drinking, silly bulletin threads, going on a DNC room visit with her and teaching the user to play Set, riding in her boyfriend's car to get ice cream and discussing whether Starbucks should introduce a "Scheme Chip" flavor to go with "Java Chip". I think of how she knew all the words to Mr. Bungle's "The Girls of Porn". I think of her warmth, her kindness, her sense of humor, how once after a nasty breakup she was able to shrug and say, "well, I only dated him for his dog."
By some strange coincidence, tonight I find myself in the city of her birth on the eve of the fifth anniversary of her death. Esther was twenty-five when she died; I am twenty-five years old now. I can hardly believe that I am as old now as she ever was. She always seemed so smart, so wise, so sensible, so well-versed in the ways of the world. I don't feel nearly as mature now as I remember her being during the times when I knew her best, when I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and she was twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two. If she were still alive, she would be thirty now. I can't imagine that, either. Would she be married with kids? (I know she wanted to have them.) Would she be living out her dreams, writing software or raising goats or teaching kids? Would she still be trying to figure out just what it was she wanted, like me? I don't know. But I'd give anything to see her again. When I try to remember her, time I spent with her seems more and more like a blur; I guess I'm writing out this post partially to remind myself, because I don't want to forget her. I re-read some emails from her tonight, something I hadn't done in as long as I can remember. The last email exchange we ever had, in May 2001, was her reply to an email from me announcing that I was getting married in two weeks and that Lyn won the Pinanski Prize (I leaked the news about the latter before I was supposed to, but only to her). She congratulated me and asked whether that meant Lyn was going to get tenure (he was up for it that fall); I replied and said not necessarily, and she said she was going to write another letter supporting him. I wonder if she wrote the letter. I wish I had emailed her one more time in between May and September.
I don't believe in God, I don't believe that people go to a better place when they die. I don't believe that when a young, healthy, happy person dies absurdly that there's a good reason for it. It's just senseless death; the world is worse off without Esther, and she is worse off for not having gotten to finish her life, for barely having gotten the chance to start it. I don't believe in the "when one door closes, another opens" stuff that some people spout about death, because I don't see any good reason why that would be true. Esther made a mistake, a trivial one, and she died because of it. We all make the same kinds of mistakes all the time, and most people get away alive. There's no sense or logic to which of us imperfect beings gets to live or die; Esther didn't deserve to live any less than anyone else who's done the same thing and never given it a second thought. If she'd remembered to pull the emergency brake, she'd probably be alive today. I almost want to get angry thinking about it -- but I don't know who to be angry at, other than her, and I can't even be angry at her since I know she didn't want to die, that she was careless because of her concern for her pet. She was careless and she died; lots of other people are far more careless and they're still here. I can find nothing to soften the blow that she died for no good reason and that her potential was wasted -- nothing except the knowledge that I am better off for having known her, the memories I have of her, and the understanding that others remember her as I do, too. I'm glad I got the chance to know Esther, and having known her for five years and then having lost her is better than never having gotten the chance to know her at all. I hate to say anything as clichéd as "she lives on in our hearts," but there you have it. All that anybody leaves behind is that they mattered to one or two or many people, and she mattered a lot to me.