“You don’t know me but I wrote a novel about you.”
These are the words I shared with him, with a bucket of colorful flowers in my cold hands, two weeks after his funeral.
If you can bear with me, let me share my story.
I was 16, depressed and in the clutches of major depression. I also had a full-blown eating disorder. I was lonely. I was depressed. I wanted to die. I would wake up, go to school, come home and go to sleep. I was too lonely to make friends, too awkward to be friendly, too depressed to enjoy life. I would spend sleepless nights thinking about the best method of suicide. I always felt like I was an alive organism but not a lively human. I was just “a life that had to be spent.”
During a particularly depressing day, I was invited to my cousin’s 12th birthday. Even though I liked my aunt’s family, I had never been a birthday person. They lived in a small house in the city center and their home was always warm. It was a small party for young kids. While my cousin was blowing out candles, I saw a framed picture on the side table. There was a young boy who appeared to be around my age in the picture. I didn’t recognize him, but his big smile and deep eyes got my attention. With the picture of the young boy in my hands, I went near my aunt and casually asked her who he was. In her high-pitched voice, my aunt replied:
“He is Dennis. You must remember him. He is the son of my husband’s cousin. He was born just a day before you. Your mother and his were close friends when you were both babies. Then they moved to Italy years ago, but he is back now. He is handsome, isn’t he?”
I looked at the picture in my hand. He was handsome for sure. But neither his name nor his looks were familiar. He was a new territory.
After I came home from the party, I couldn’t shake his deep looks out of my head. I saw his big green eyes everywhere. I lied down on my clean sheets and closed my eyes. I started dreaming immediately–the two of us spending time together.
I had never been lucky with boys, I had always fallen for the wrong guys who hurt or ignored me. But Dennis looked different. He appeared to be welcoming and safe. As cliché as that sounds, I could picture our lives together.
That night was one of the many nights that I didn’t spend thinking about suicide. After my cousin’s 12th birthday, every time I closed my eyes, I would dream about Dennis and I spending a lifetime together. During hard times, I would close my eyes and think about his smile. I would picture his arms around my waist and his lips on my lips. As time went on, dreaming and imagining stopped satisfying me. I wanted more.
So I opened a blank Word document and started writing a story. I didn’t know where the story was going until I typed “The End,” 400 pages later. I had written a book about someone I didn’t know.
I never considered having the book published. I was a teenager from a country between Europe and the Middle East. I thought that the publishers in my country could never be interested in the ramblings of a depressed teenager, people had better things to do than read my book. Plus, I was afraid that people would judge me for my words and dreams.
After printing the novel out and putting it in the bottom drawer of my desk, I knew that I was changed. I no longer spent my days feeling hopeless and depressed. I focused on being a good student and got into the top school of my country. I traveled long distances and volunteered for kids in need. I found ways of helping people in need and taking control of my life.
I never forgot about Dennis. The fantasy of meeting him in real life never left me. I would find myself thinking deeply about what kind of a person he was in real life. Was he like the sweet Dennis in my book? What if his picture was lying and he was a total jerk?
I was too much of a chicken to meet him in real life.
Two weeks ago, I was again at my cousin’s birthday, this time at a bigger and better party, a sweet 16. As I stepped into the crowd, I looked for the framed picture of Dennis. I failed to find it, and I couldn’t think of a way to ask my aunt about the picture.
After the party ended and the guests left, my aunt and I were in the kitchen, doing the dishes. My aunt blatantly said:
“It felt so wrong that we threw this big party today.”
I asked her why she felt it was wrong to throw a big party.
“Oh … I guess I didn’t tell you. Do you remember my husband’s cousin’s son, Dennis? He was born just a day before you. Your mothers were friends before they moved to Italy…”
I didn’t want her to keep going with the story. I knew it was going to end badly.
“He had always had problems with his heart and he passed away two days ago.”
I felt a sudden rush of emotions and a great desire to hide them. I didn’t want anyone to know the way I felt connected to him. In fact, I made it to my car without shedding a single tear. I parked my car in the parking lot of a supermarket chain and cried until I could no longer see.
The grief felt so hard. I questioned whether I had the right to be sad over his death? I had written a book based on him, but I never knew anything about him except for the fact that he had grown up in Italy. I didn’t feel like I was allowed to grieve. People have a deep understanding of grief for parents, friends, and relatives, but there are no group therapy sessions for people who have unfortunately had one of their book characters die in real life.
A couple of days ago, I managed to build up enough courage and strength to visit him for the first time. I bought flowers for him from my favorite flower shop, a bucket of pink and red chrysanthemums. I visited his graveyard, praying that no one else would show up.
I said my hellos and goodbyes, and explained to him how much he changed my life.
“You don’t know me but I wrote a book about you.”
As tears covered my eyes, I thanked him for the great dreams he provided me. I thanked him for the inspiration he gave me. I thanked him for smiling for the lost girl I once was.
And I apologized to him for never letting him know that someone who thought so highly of him existed. I apologized because I never got to tell him about how much he changed me. I apologized for being too much of a chicken.
I came home from the graveyard and took out the stash of paper from my bottom drawer.
I said out loud, “Life is too short for unpublished novels.”