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An Unusual Celebration: Notes On Losing A Friend (And Keeping Their Memory Alive)

love

The four of us swimming with a kangaroo float in Australia in 2007

No distance of place or lapse of time can lessen the friendship of those who are thoroughly persuaded of each other’s worth.” – Robert Southey, English author and poet

Tonight, I went to a birthday party. While that may not sound like something worth declaring this wasn’t just any birthday celebration, but an impromptu party for a dear friend — also named Jess — who had passed away two years prior. It was strange how the gathering happened as it wasn’t pre-planned whatsoever, but instead was one of those evenings where you feel like the universe pulled you to a certain place.

Jess, Kait, Rose and myself met in 2007 when we studied abroad in Sydney, Australia together. I still remember the day we met so clearly, Jess’ boisterous laugh filling the orientation bus. The four of us were just drawn together, knowing just by looking at each other that we would have common interests. That night, we went out in Darling Harbour — made famous on Real World Sydney — to check out the local nightlife. If you’ve ever been to Sydney or remember from the television show there are enormous fountains around the harbor. As a joke, I dipped my toe into one of them and pretended to stumble. “Guys, imagine if I fell in?” I’d laughed.

Well, I did fall in. Not only that, but my entire purse with camera and cell phone fell in. I also almost drowned because apparently two feet of water is too deep for a 20 year old. I flailed my arms and screamed and people stopped to laugh and take photos. Finally, I realized that I indeed could touch the bottom of the fountain — this wasn’t the ocean, after all — and climbed out. At that moment I was pretty sure my brand new “friends” would never talk to me again out of fear of having to take such an embarrassing human being out in public; however, the opposite ended up being true, and it became a running joke that we still to this day talk about, tears of laughter brimming from belly laughs. Not to toot my own horn, but I give myself full credit for cementing our friendship through humiliation for everyone’s benefit.

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Best friends

I consider that semester at Sydney University one of the best periods of my life. I can barely remember a moment where I just sat inside and laid on the couch. In fact, my roommates and I resisted getting a TV for that reason (which, sidenote, is a concept I ended up loving and brought back with my to Brooklyn). Each day, the four of us would go to class and then set out to explore the food, culture, neighborhoods, beaches, museums and, the main thing on our to-do list, the nightlife. In the process, we shared inside jokes, discovered new places together and learned a lot about ourselves, growing together and becoming lifelong friends (Rose and I are even flying out to California to attend Kait’s wedding in October!).

Sadly, two years ago Jess was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She was such a strong girl, never letting on how bad it was. In fact, unless she told you you would have never known she was sick. I remember when she first bought her wig and was showing it off. In order to drain her lymph nodes she had a small hole under her arm, and when she lifted her arm to fix her hair some fluid spurted out. Instead of being embarrassed Jess laughed and made a joke of it, saying she “looked like a fountain.” She was truly a burst of positivity, not to mention an amazing friend and a blast to be around, sick or not.

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Hanging out with Jess back in NYC

When she passed away I was in Bolivia. I still remember receiving the email. I’d gone to a local internet cafe to email my parents about where I currently was, and instead ended up laying my head on the keyboard, crying so hard I couldn’t breath. Nothing is worse than losing a friend or loved one. The shopkeeper was worried, but when I explained to him the situation (in broken Spanish) he simply brought me tissues and patted me on the back. I walked all over Uyuni, Bolivia, that day, even buying a ring from a street seller that I decided would be something special I wore in her memory. It’s still something I cherish.

Along with the physical momentos, I have Kait and Rose to help me remember her. While we’re all from New York, Kait moved to San Diego a few years ago with her then-boyfriend, now-fiance, possibly husband depending when you’re reading this. Because of this, we don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like — although when we do it’s like no time has passed at all (isn’t that the best feeling?). Kait happened to be in town for her bridal shower — at this point we hadn’t seen each other in over a year — and Rose happened to have some time to meetup in between being a nurse and going to school. When we got together, we realized something pretty crazy: It was Jess’ birthday.

There are 365 days in a year. Kait, Rose and myself see each other maybe once per year, if we’re lucky to all be able to get together. What are the chances that this year it would end up on Jess’s birthday? In my mind, it was fate.

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Myself, rose and Kait toasting Jess and remembering the good times on a her special day

So, we did the only logical thing we could think of. We had a birthday party. Bar crawling our way through Manhattan’s Lower East Side, we started with catching up at Hotel Chantalle — the place where the date realization was made — then toasted with Champagne at Beauty & Essex and shared our favorite memories of the four of us being together. From there, we made our way to Pianos, singing “Happy Birthday” while taking pineapple upside down shots and requesting all Jess’s favorite songs to dance to. It truly felt like she was with us. And in true Jess fashion, we stayed out until 4am and ended the night with a slice of pizza (okay, maybe that’s just because we were starving and had a little too much booze, but Jess would have loved it).

While some people spend the birthdays of loved ones who have departed in mourning, something just felt right about celebrating her life instead. I would be lying if I said I didn’t cry that day — I’m crying right now as I write this post — but it felt so good to commemorate her in a more positive and upbeat way, reminiscing and remembering all the good times. I strongly believe she could hear us singing to her, could see us dancing and was hopefully sipping some Champagne of her own and toasting us in heaven.

Have you lost someone special in your life? How do you honor and preserve their memory? If you feel moved to do so, feel free to share in the comments below.

Jessie Festa standing in front of grafitti wall

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2 Comments

  1. brittany levers on April 28, 2016 at 1:23 am

    Reading this post brought me tears due to the same recent tragedy of losing my friend Abi last week. Her death was random which put me at a standstill. At her wake, I realized she was the only person I knew that lived the life she wanted. Though she lived most of it irresponsibly, she lived without regrets. She skipped half of a semester to travel the world, she danced to become comfortable with her body weight, and she was everyone’s cheerleader. In a puddle of tears, I felt like Abi’s spirit was telling to me to suck it the fuck up, and live life as if tomorrow doesn’t exist. I love the idea of travel, but was always terrified of it. To honor her, I will live my life responsibly lol, but fruitfully. Every year on her birthday, my friends and I will travel to every place on her bucket list.

    • Jessie Festa on April 28, 2016 at 7:36 am

      @Brittany: What a beautiful story and wonderful way to honor your friend’s memory! What’s first on the bucket list? I’m sure she will be looking down on you all with a big smile.

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