We put it off for as long as possible.
“It’s the first week of school,” Yoav wrote.
“I have a quiz this week,” AJ said.
“We can’t—there’s a holiday the next day,” Kayla reminded us.
We conjured up every excuse to delay the inevitable, and typed them in our group chat. It was as if we’d all silently agreed: if we gave in and finally cleared out Hannah’s stuff from her room, we’d be admitting that she had really died.
But if we did not do it, nobody would. There was no one else left to clean out my dead best friend’s room.
Eventually we ran out of believable excuses, and Hannah’s cousin, Jess, made the trek from Brooklyn to our Morningside Heights dorm. She had already flown to Florida and cleaned out Hannah’s house—her parents’ and brother’s rooms too, a task too horrendous for me to comprehend.
Now, we stood outside Apartment 24 of Goldsmith Hall, where Kayla, Hannah and I had blissfully lived together. We, Hannah’s friends, gathered in a semi-circle around Jess. We were pale, with bags under our eyes, looking up at her.
My partner, Noah, stood beside me, holding my quivering hand. In the weeks after the Weiss family died, I’d developed a twitch in my left eye, and my right leg shook whenever someone mentioned the accident.
Like a coach giving her team a pep-talk before the big game, Jess imparted her wisdom to us before she opened the door. “This is going to be really hard, guys. We’ll have to decide what to keep, what to give away, and what to throw out. It’s going to be painful at first, and that’s okay. Take your time, and if you need to cry or step out, that’s understandable. But after a while, going through her stuff might be healing in a weird way,” she said. “When you’re looking through it, memories will come up, and that can be a beautiful way to connect with her.” I doubted that, but it was a nice sentiment. We nodded and tried to smile. The whole thing seemed trivial—selfish, even. Who were we to sift through Hannah’s stuff, and decide where it went? Stuff, things, material objects—they seemed silly to think about in the wake of life and death. I wanted to get this over with.
Once the door opened, everything moved in slow motion: we entered the apartment on tiptoe, as if any sudden move would disturb the pieces of Hannah that still lived there. I had not entered apartment 24 since she died: In fact, Kayla and I had asked upperclassmen to move our stuff into a new dorm so we wouldn’t have to go in ourselves. Apartment 24 was suite-style: we each had our own bedroom, but shared a kitchen and common room.
I glanced into my old room, now empty, and saw ghosts. I saw myself sitting at the wooden desk, groaning about all of my readings on a Tuesday night in November. Hannah stood behind me
digging a lacrosse ball into my shoulders, kneading out the knots and promising, with her chin on my head, that we’d both get our homework done in time. There was Hannah in our tiny kitchen, bent over the stove cooking an omelet, enthusiastically explaining how Mother Hubbard Farm lets their chickens roam free in a field. I approached the common room: Hannah dancing in a flowy pink tie-dyed dress, ringlet curls bouncing, arms flailing, smile wide, eyes closed. Hannah sitting cross-legged on the couch, naked, eating Annie’s Mac n Cheese (her favorite) out of the pot. Hannah standing on the table, tying to the ceiling a giant branch that she’d found by the Hudson and wrapped in fairy lights. My head in her lap, as she played with my hair and explained Kant’s Categorical Imperative. These memories seemed so real. It was difficult to keep my balance. I wondered if the rest of them were seeing ghosts as well.
Finally, we made it to Hannah’s room. Jess unlocked the door and we silently filed in. My breathing stopped—nothing else in the apartment could have prepared me for this. Hannah’s room looked as if she had just been there moments ago, and had run out to grab groceries at the farmer’s market. The bed was unmade, her bedside table held a light-up crystal, a flower-covered box of condoms, and a book of Jewish meditations. On her desk sat a single used envelope with a list scrawled in her neat, loopy cursive with pink ink:
Everything was crossed off except “water” and “purse.” A pen decorated with hearts and candy sat on the envelope. We all looked at each other: there was no doubt that this packing list was for her trip to Costa Rica.
That winter break, both Hannah’s and my family had decided to go on vacation to Costa Rica. Hannah and I used this fact as motivation to get through a grueling finals week. On late nights in the library, we’d slip each other sticky notes: “ONE MORE WEEK TIL WE’RE AT THE BEACH!!!!,” she’d write when my head started to droop over my laptop. On study breaks, we’d walk through the chilly Butler Library hallways fantasizing about dancing at Costa Rican clubs together, where it wouldn’t matter that we were only nineteen. Once we actually got to Costa Rica, my brother and I went to a bar and I texted Hannah, asking her to meet up with us.
“I’m near a volcano, bitch we are no place near you,” she attached her location. “I MISS YOU AND ANDREW THO. BBYS, I WANNA SEE YOU SO BADLY U DON’T UNDERSTAND. Also a massage… I miss our daily routine,” she wrote. I smiled. The next morning she sent me this text: “Just thinking of you & hoping you are having the best time – soaking up sun, talking to all the locals, having deep convos in Spanish per usual….miss you tons & can’t believe I won’t be seeing you for a while. I love u bestfrand, say hi to the fam for me.”
At the time, the note seemed normal: Hannah never passed up the chance to tell her friends how much we meant to her. Little did I know that in a few days, a New York Times reporter would call, begging me to produce screenshots of these exact messages. They would take on a whole new meaning, no longer a private conversation between best friends, but evidence. Details of a tear-jerking news story for the public to consume and cluck their tongues, whispering “what a shame,” and “it could really happen to anyone, couldn’t it?”
At first, everything made me cry: the poster on her wall of a koala holding onto a branch that said “Hang In There!”, the navy blue Turbie Twist that still smelled of her coconut shampoo, the extra-large kombucha bottle that held a single wilted flower. I snapped photos of each section of the room, as if she herself were embodied in the floral tapestries and raggedy carpet. I wished the lens could capture the remnants of her smell. She had a small bottle of patchouli perfume which she loved, but it smelled like puke to me, and I never hesitated to tell her so. Now, I stared at the glass bottle. I swear, I would wear that perfume every day for the rest of my life if it meant she would come back, I pleaded with God. Somehow I thought this time, my wish would be granted. Although I offered God something different every day, my bargaining never worked. I sat on the floor and buried my tear-streaked face in her towel as the rest of them began to pull the room apart.
Toward the end of our time in Costa Rica, I sent Hannah pictures of compost piles at an organic spice farm we visited. I tried to impress her with my knowledge, even though she’d taught me everything I knew about sustainability. “COMPOST PORN!!!” she responded, then sent me pictures of her younger brother sitting in a hot spring. We calculated our distance—still too far away to visit. We were disappointed, but it was fine—we’d just see each other when school started again.
My family flew back to Philadelphia on December 30th. Meanwhile, Hannah was still in Costa Rica, traveling from the beach back to their hotel: “There is a PLANE for us to get there and it’s a PRIVATE ONE there’s like 8 people on each plane,” she texted me. It seemed glamorous.
On New Years Eve, I hosted a small party at my grandparents’ house. My high school friends and I slid into short black dresses, smeared glitter on each other’s eyes (a trick Hannah had taught me), mixed mojitos and distributed them in colorful plastic cups. I banged on the table and proposed a toast, to a new year filled with deep, loving friendships. They all raised their glasses, cheering and smiling. When I think back to this, I remember it as the moment my life was ripped into two parts: a “before” and an “after.”
The scene was perfectly celebratory. “I have to take a picture, stay there!” I said, grabbing my phone from the counter. I pressed the home button and saw a message from a random guy at my school who I barely knew. “I need to talk to you. It’s an emergency. I saw on FB that you are close to Hannah Weiss. I got a call from Chabad in Costa Rica, they believe her family was in a plane crash…”. The room started spinning. I froze in place as everyone stared, waiting for me to take the picture. My heart and mind left my body, but my body sprinted to my grandparents’ room and collapsed on the floor. My body shrieked and screamed and convulsed. A chorus of “What’s wrong?” echoed from the kitchen but I could not hear. Noah came into the room and tried to hold me but I could not see him, I could not feel his touch.
We had been in her room for an hour and I’d hardly moved. One of her drawers ended up in front of me, so I gently picked up a piece of clothing. It was a soft, long-sleeved top with holes on both shoulders. I suddenly began to laugh. In October, Hannah, Noah and I took the subway down to Brooklyn to see Zusha, an orthodox Jewish band. Hannah wore this shirt as a play on the rules of modesty, in which women are forbidden to reveal their shoulders. I sat on her bed before the concert, admiring her outfit choice and bravery, as we smoked out of her elephant shaped bowl. We were giddy at the concert in a sea of orthodox teenagers. “I’m gonna get that drummer’s number,” Hannah told us, pointing to stage. “Yeah right,” Noah said, laughing. After the concert, Hannah marched right up to the band and introduced herself. She reached out to shake the drummer’s hand, and invited him to come over for dinner. Within minutes, she walked back to us triumphantly with his number in her phone. That was just Hannah.
“You can keep that, you know,” said Jess, smiling down at me. My belly felt warm. There was something viscerally comforting about holding this sweater. I was holding the memory, too.
I found her vegan cookbook, inexplicably filled with curse words. Hannah and I had gone through and bookmarked dozens of recipes: chickpea tacos for Shabbat dinner when we invited her crush, blueberry oatmeal for breakfast with Kayla before class. I slipped the book into my backpack.
I stood up and looked around the room, surprised by how much stuff Hannah had possessed. But none of it was random. She was someone for whom every object had significance. What a blessing that mindset was for us, now the proud holders of pieces of her life. I never cared much about things, never worried if they broke or got lost. Until that day. I treasured Hannah’s sweaters and placed her bowl of rocks on my desk. I wore her dresses and necklaces to class and relished the moment when someone asked where I got them. “Oh, they were Hannah’s,” I’d reply, not caring if it made them uncomfortable.
Hannah couldn’t attend the Jewish Philosophy class that we planned to take together. She couldn’t come out with us to our favorite queer club on 112th Street and dance on the stage. She could no longer explore the city, and teach at Hebrew school, and educate about her passion, sustainability. But when I wore her clothes or brought her books in my bag, I could take her with me.
The other day, I stumbled upon a note I had written days after the crash:
I am in total shock and genuinely don’t know if life will ever be the same…
Celebration, joy, and true happiness seem to be unattainable now that you’re gone.
I was right and I was wrong. Years later, I can confirm that life will never be the same as it was before she died. My vision of the world is forever tinted darker by her absence.
But I would be able to find happiness in her memory, in how lucky I was to know her and be close to her. For a while I simply went through the motions of life, because that was all I could do. But eventually, I came to find joy in honoring her memory: in continuing the sustainability club she started on campus, visiting the garden our friend planted for her, keeping in touch with her cousins, reciting Mourner’s Kaddish at services.
I was also wrong that she would never be with me again.
I still wear her turtleneck for days in a row.
I slip on her bracelet when I’m about to give a presentation.
Her Star of David necklace sits on my collarbone whenever I enter a Jewish space.
Through these supposedly trivial little things, she is always with me.
Gila Axelrod is a Brooklyn-based queer Jewish writer and educator. They are the Editor in Chief of New Voices Magazine.