"My friend was dying, and I was ‘too busy’ to say goodbye"

I will always remember her the way she was when we first met. Dappled in sunshine.
It was seven years ago, on an empty jetty in Croatia. She with her partner in crime, I with mine. All four of us were lost. Lost trying to find the boat we were due to spend the next five hours on, a sunset festival booze cruise where what happens at sea, stays there. There were no boats in the harbour. We checked our phones, checked our watches. We were on time. I don’t know how long we were chatting for but by the time we looked up and saw the shadow of the boat sails casting us in a respite of glorious shade – the four of us had become firm friends. Five hours later, we were inseparable.
The next few days of the music festival were some of my favourite. We got our faces covered in glitter (long before Instagram made it a cliché) and drank warm Tuborg out of damp bottles until the sun came up. Every day we snuck them into our hotel and got enough from the all you can eat buffet to feed four at every meal. We met boys and danced until dawn in an ancient amphitheatre, safe in the knowledge that no one on earth was having as much fun as we were. On the last night we left the festival, put on nice dresses and had dinner in town, drinking local rosé while posing on impossibly white outdoor beds lit by fire lanterns. We swapped numbers and flew home. I had glitter in my hairline for over a week.
Amy and her friend
Amy’s friend (far left), and Amy (second from left)
To me, she was rocket fuel. She was the sense of adventure to my sensible sensibilities. She was the ‘why not’ to my ‘but why?’ She got me into mischief that I desperately needed and I, in turn, would come to provide an occasional counterbalance to her hot-headedness. We were exotic outsiders in each other’s already fully formed social circles. A position of power, and of intrigue.
That is, until she died, and I had no way of explaining to my friends that someone very important – who they knew almost nothing about – was not here anymore.
I found out she was ill just over a year ago. Cancer. The type she was far too young to have. She handled it the way she did everything: by squaring her shoulders and making a plan of action. This plan did not involve sympathy, pity or any kind of outpouring of grief on our parts. She was going to fight it and the only thing she wanted from us was to carry on as normal. To not make her feel like a sick person. To not look at her like she was dying.
I saw her just twice in the year before she died. It is hard admitting that. It is harder admitting why. That life got in the way. My life got in the way of her death. Work, a new job, new relationships for both of us, the perennially boring struggle with ‘busy’. The shallow barriers that can feel unsurmountable, right up until you realise it is too late to do anything about it.
We’d arrange to meet and one of us would cancel. Eventually we had brunch, just after she’d been told that her tumour was getting worse. She was very careful what language she used, never telling me it was Stage 4, only ever talking about the practical – fitting chemo around work, her fluctuating energy levels. I look back at the questions I asked her and marvel at my own stupidity: would her and her boyfriend get to go on holiday next year? Were they thinking of buying somewhere together after this was all over? She dodged them, artfully in fact. We talked about how she’d finally got her hair long and now it would now go, probably around the time of her next chemo session. When I first met her, she had an undercut. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
Amy and her friend
Amy’s friend (middle), and Amy (far right)
Two weeks later we went hat shopping. I tried on backwards caps in Topshop to make her laugh and pulled out a maroon velvet headband that she loved at And Other Stories. We ate a hurried Tuesday night pasta and she tutted as the clueless waiting staff brought the wrong drinks, and no cutlery. She used to run bars and restaurants, even theatres – and I loved the high standards she held everyone to. She was one of my favourite people to have dinner with.
We said goodbye at the tube, and the next thing I heard, she was dead.
The news came on 22nd December. I had text her in November and heard nothing back. I knew chemo would be taking its toll by then, so I left it. It would be gallant to say I didn’t want to crowd her, but that would be a lie. The truth is more inconvenient. I forgot to chase. I forgot to go to her, to not make her make yet more decisions, to bring her dinner. And now it was too late.
At the funeral a lot of the girls had pixie crops, the shaved heads they had braved for charity and in solidarity with her were now growing out. To go to a funeral of someone your own age, to look around and see only youth and new life, was a strange and disconcerting thing. Guilt twanged at my insides like a taught rubber band. The gap between our last meeting and her death remained blank. I had no idea what had happened, how it had accelerated so fast. She had planned this funeral; who would speak, who would read poems, pick songs. That she would be laid to rest to the sound of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. The relish I felt about my outsider status disappeared. Now I felt like an interloper, intruding on other people’s more deserved grief.
Afterwards we talked and told our stories of her. The time we sang karaoke and danced on tables, the day she finally got her favourite silver Russell and Bromley boots and clicked them together like Judy Garland, that May bank holiday weekend that no one remembers getting home, that day in New York in the tattoo parlour. God I would miss her.
Gradually, I learned the truth of those last few months. I asked tactical questions to unearth the details, trying not to let on my secret: that I didn’t know. I wasn’t there. I was too busy.
Amy and her friend
Amy’s friend (left), and Amy (second from left)
But soon, I heard other people asking my questions. Piecing together the facts, the timelines. I realised there were other interlopers. Slowly, I did not feel like such a fraud. Like I didn’t belong. Eventually, one of her closest friends made sense of it for me: “Imagine having to have that conversation with every person you knew… it would break your heart. Is that really how you’d want to spend those few moments you had left?”
And finally I got it. Guilt and anger dulled into crushing understanding. Death is not about you, it is about them. She did not get a choice in so much of what happened. But this? This she could choose.
And now, so can I. On the dark, rickety, four-hour train journey home from her funeral I made a few vows. Choices about how best to serve her memory. I vowed to make time, no matter what. It doesn’t have to be long. With good friends everything is shorthand anyway. I decided to mix my friendship groups, often and without purpose. Everybody should exist in context. After all, the thing they all have in common is you. Everything else is just politics. Finally, something that a great writer once told me is the most important thing about any good feature – but which I now find is applicable to almost everything in life: show, don’t tell. Telling people you love them is important but easy, and usually much more about you than them. Showing them? Much harder, and all the more vital for being so.
As for her? I will always remember her the way she was when we first met: dappled in sunshine.

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