i can fold a paper crane with my eyes closed.

It's a trick I learned while sitting on the floor of a Brighton funeral home on a cold, snowy mid-April day during my junior year of high school. I don't remember the name of the girl who taught me. I don't remember her face or if she even went to school with me. Five years later, the only thing I can really remember is the sharp contrast of her calm instructions against the heart-wrenching sounds of another girl sobbing in a back room.

"Now unfold that piece and pull it up... then pull these two to puff out the body. That's all."

The room was full of kids looking down, quietly folding. I tossed my crane into the large pile that had begun to form in the middle of the room. One more out of ten thousand folded tributes to a life ended too soon.

In any jumbled, messy story of growing up, there are events that stand alone and apart from the chaos as significant milestones. Often times, these moments are not recognized as being so important and life-changing until long after they've passed. They become life's greatest lessons--and while they may be too far over our heads the first time around, they burrow themselves in our hearts and minds and wait until they are called upon later in life at a time when we can better understand what it is we're being taught.

I met my friend Stephanie for the first time when I joined the girls' swim team as a sophomore in high school. She was a small freshman with a voice almost as high as a three-year-old who just inhaled a balloon full of helium, a tiny-framed ball of energy, a fast swimmer and an even faster talker. Beyond that, she was competitive as all hell. We were never really super close, but for the time I knew her, I came to consider her a pretty good friend. We would go over Chinese homework together on the bus to practice, talk about manga we were reading, and hang out after school before ASIA meetings. Every so often, I got a peek at the pieces of Steph that didn't quite match up with the bubbly manga-reading person I saw in school every day. She was searching for happiness that she seemed to never really find. Her blog entries seemed to be written by an entirely different person than the one I saw in school, a girl too angry at the world around her to be bothered about helping little animals or giving candy to her friends.

"No one would miss me," she once told me. "Nobody would cry or anything. I doubt anyone would even know the difference."
"Not true," I answered, unsure of what else to say. "I would cry."
"That sounds like a huge load of bullshit."

On April 9, 2005, a sunny springtime Saturday, she walked out of a Chinatown restaurant and into the middle of a busy intersection on Washington St.

"She came out of nowhere," they all said.
"There's no way he could have seen her in time to stop the car."

Maybe the worst part about it, for me, was that she was right. I didn't cry when I heard the news the next day. I didn't cry when I got to school that Monday and saw everyone else crying. I didn't cry when I walked past the locker covered in notes and flowers, and I didn't cry when I sat down in Greek Tradition a few desks in front of an empty chair with a teddy bear and bouquet in the place of a student. I didn't cry when I dressed in black and hopped on a bus to Chestnut Hill, didn't cry when my 2-mile walk from the bus stop to the funeral home was interupted by a bearded 20-something-year-old anarchist trying to sell me on the evils of government, didn't cry when I saw her because whoever that poor dead girl was in the casket didn't look anything like anyone I knew. I didn't even cry when my guidance counselor hugged me and said "It's okay to cry." The only thing I could do was sit silently on the floor with a bunch of other kids and fold birds out of scraps of paper. I didn't know what else to do, because it didn't seem real.

Like the Boston Herald wrote the next day, "at 16, death is supposed to be an abstraction."

I didn't cry until I was sitting in the passenger seat of my mother's car a month later on the way home from the wake of my Chinese teacher, the fifth and final death that my high school's community had suffered in that year. I guess that was the moment that my 16-year-old self began to realize that death is not an abstraction, it's a reality. It's a very, very real part of life.

Today is April 9, 2010. It has been five years to the day since Stephanie passed away. Today, I am twenty one years old, thirty seven days away from my college graduation ceremony. Over the past five years, I've been to many more wakes, funerals, and memorials. The pages of my Kare Kano manga books are yellowing and gathering dust in a box somewhere in the attic. It's been so long since I've swum competively that I doubt I'd be able to finish a 50 free anywhere close to my best time. My last Chinese homework assignment was passed in four years ago. This past summer, Carmen DiNunzio began serving a 6-year sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges of extortion, bribery, and illegal gambling; no charges were ever filed against him after a 16-year-old high school student was hit and killed by his SUV. Ten thousand paper cranes are flying in peace parks all around the world in memory of a girl whose hands were not there to fold any of them.

There's not a lot I remember from my junior year of high school. It's one of those awkward teenage years I try not to think about too much. But five years later, I do still find myself subconsciously folding scraps of paper into cranes of different sizes, colors, textures and patterns. Every time I finish one, I'm forced for just a split second to remember the day I learned how to make an origami crane, to see how much has changed since then, to reflect on another lesson that I'm finally really beginning to grasp: that a life is a book with a beginning and an end.

Just because the pages stop doesn't mean the protagonist must cease to exist. She can continue on beyond the binding, living happily ever after in the epilogues created for her by the people lucky enough to have had the chance to read her novel.

"She was there with us, and everyone knew it. Snow was falling in the middle of April. I mean, even in Massachusetts, how often does that actually happen?"
in memory of stephanie lam


  1. This is an absolutely beautiful post Jenn. Your way of telling the story really got to me and the whole entry is just so eloquent and well spoken. Thank you for sharing this. I am sure she would be so proud to read this story that you have narrated for her. Stay strong love.


    Hannah Katy

  2. Beautifully written. I remember watching you during this time and wishing I could absorb all of it for you, yet realizing how important and necessary it was for you to work through it. My greatest hope is that, during times like this one, you did in fact work through it, but knew that you could come to me if and when the burden was too great. (That goes for now, too!) Stephanie knows--of that I have no doubt. Love you.

  3. This article shows a lot of writing talent Jenn.
    Really well done, your feelings shine through.
    Don't stop !


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