My mother died from breast cancer too young at 52. I was 17 years old and completely unprepared. My father, on the other hand, was 82 when he passed away. During the time leading up to his death, my siblings and I steeled ourselves for his steady atrophy the way families do when the patriarch finally dies at an old age that’s more, well, expected. “He had a good run,” we all agreed.
Death is supposed to adhere to a proper timeline. When it doesn’t, the world tilts off its axis, bringing with it everyone in its radius. Which is why in July 2015, we helplessly looked on after our friend Jeremy’s 14-year-old daughter died in a snorkeling accident.
My husband, Bertrand, and I had only recently become friends with Jeremy and his wife, Emily. Fairly new to the neighborhood, our waves to each other from our respective driveways grew into the joyful thrill of a new friendship after a few dinners together had confirmed we liked spending time together.
Jeremy was the quieter of the couple. Emily was the one who told us the story of their courtship; Emily was the one who informed us about the new Saturday Ramen Nights at the Meat Market, Jeremy’s restaurant in Great Barrington near our little town in northwest Massachusetts. Emily was even the one who told us about Jeremy’s two kids from his first marriage, and how they’d recently decided to homeschool one of them.
“Maia’s high school isn’t working for her,” Emily had explained one night after dinner a few months prior to the accident. “She’s really talented, and she loves fashion and art. So I’m asking everyone who has a cool job if they’d meet with her.”
I had a cool job. Working at a high-end fashion magazine, I oversaw a beauty closet the size of a roomy Manhattan bedroom lined with shelves of shampoos, moisturizers and perfumes built over drawers loaded with makeup from every brand you could imagine. Of course I’d meet her.
I wasn’t expecting much. The words “homeschooled” and “high school’s not working for her” prompted my own set of words: Troubled. Entitled. Brat.
The girl who shyly walked into my office behind her stepmother that warm July afternoon dispelled all my presumptions. Maia. An ethereal young beauty with wide pale blue eyes, chestnut blonde hair, and lightly freckled skin that glowed from the mountain air she’d been raised on. She radiated innocence. Whatever issues had kept her from assimilating into high school, none were evident to me.
As I walked them through the halls of my magazine’s offices, Maia let her stepmother handle the questions I’m sure were hers:
“Where did the people in your art department go to college?” “Does W have an intern program” “Do you try all the beauty products you get yourself?”
Maia’s lines, on the other hand, were mostly on repeat. She must have uttered, “Oh my god!” half a dozen times. She was overwhelmed and overstimulated. I caught glimmers of determination in her eyes, strategizing the next steps toward a newly hatched plan that would get her to this world one day. It warmed my heart.
The visit lasted only a few minutes — they had a three-hour drive back to the Berkshires — so I sent them off with some goodies from the beauty closet and a copy of W with the actress Amanda Seyfried gracing the cover.
I sent Emily an email the next day: “Loved meeting Maia. She’s a sparkling gem. Let’s brainstorm more about who else I can introduce her to.”
A week later, a text from a friend lit up my phone. “Did you hear about the Stanton girl?”
My husband and I walked to Emily and Jeremy’s house that Friday, casserole in hand. We knew to gird ourselves, but nothing could prepare us for the profound sadness and shell shock of the scene. This wasn’t an elderly parent dying or someone taken by cancer in their 50s. This was a healthy teenager stolen away by the sea. We looked at those we knew and shook our heads in solace. I caught a glimpse of Jeremy in the study. He was with a woman whom I presumed was his mother. I looked away. It felt too personal to witness.
We didn’t belong there. This was a time for family and close friends to mourn their beloved Maia together. We were two months in, tops. We should be setting the Tupperware on the counter and slipping out so they could go about processing their unspeakable new reality.
“Are you Jane?” A woman I didn’t know stood in the doorway. “Jeremy wants to see you.”
He wept and wailed on my shoulder as I rocked his shaking body back and forth. In this moment, I had become family. His daughter had spent one of her best and last days with me, and that had elevated me to the inner circle. Soothing words flowed from my mouth as his tears soaked my neck — everything from “I know, I know,” to “She’s here with us.” You say what you think you should say. You say what they say in movies. You are on autopilot because the situation is so horrible, and there are no rulebooks.
“She loved you so much, so much,” he whispered into my shoulder.
My relationship with Maia encompassed a total of 15 minutes, but I understood. The seductive world of beautiful people in fancy clothes creating glossy pages of art and fashion inside a glorious skyscraper sparked a love at first sight. At a moment when her future was a scattered, hazy question mark, that afternoon said, Look at what’s possible. As for me, I’d found a new mentee, a little sister. But before we had a chance to find out what truly was possible, I’d lost her.
I received a text from Emily a few weeks later. No words, just three images: a sketch of Remy, our poodle; a watercolor of Remy and me, and a pencil drawing of the Amanda Seyfried cover, with the words “Thank you Jane!” written in the upper corner. Samples of what, I presumed, was a larger, equally impressive portfolio.
The artwork lives on my phone. I have Instagrammed one, Facebooked another. When I land on one while scrolling through my photos, it stops me in my tracks. I think about that face, which, having only met once, blends with Seyfried’s in my mind’s eye. If I allow myself to consider what her family went through that July, I find I’m too weak or afraid to fully try to give in to the emotions.
Perhaps this puerile reaction stems from having been only a child when death visited me too personally and prematurely. I steel myself and wait for the moment to pass. Distanced from it enough that I don’t have to go there, I choose not to. I turn on my phone or the TV and feel the weight of the guilt dissipate. Though the speed with which it does varies.
It’s been a year and a half since the accident. Emily and Jeremy are now a part of our lives. Despite the momentary intimacy he and I shared in his study that day, we have not spoken of his daughter again. Emily says they talk about Maia all the time, which sounds like the healthiest way to navigate the still-raw circumstance that has become their lives. She says they feel her presence around them often. They built a meditation spot for Maia in the woods on their farm. She and her twins brought me there last summer. It is decorated with prayer flags and incense and its perch provides a glorious view. Emily says Maia would have loved it.
When she says things like that, I realize she’s filling in the blanks of a life I didn’t know, putting together pieces of this puzzle so that it will not fade. Learning about Maia tangentially like this is strange and unique, but it is all I have.
A few weeks before the first anniversary of the accident, Emily finally received the email I sent after Maia’s visit (“Maia is a gem”).
“Did you just send this??? I JUST got it!” She wrote. “How crazy is that??”
At that moment, we both felt her presence.
Jane Larkworthy is a beauty writer living in New York City. Previously, the executive beauty director of W Magazine, she writes for WSJ Magazine and the Sunday Times UK. She documents her weekend life in the Berkshires on her blog, The Fraudulent Chef.