This week is National Epilepsy Week in the UK. Unless you have a reason to know this, this week will probably pass you by; I, unfortunately have a reason.
I just want to tell you a story; about when my friend Maggie died unexpectedly in her sleep – a little known potential consequence of epilepsy.
The first time I saw her I knew I wanted to be her friend. She was the type of person that you can’t ignore. Several girls (and boys) had joined our year group at the same time, but she immediately stood out. First of all, she was American; secondly she had a mass of brown curly hair; thirdly she was wearing trainers (strictly contraband!) as her clothes had taken longer to be shipped over than anticipated; fourthly she was wearing a bright red polo neck, and finally, she was wearing a short miniskirt that stretched (in a good way) over her fabulous arse. Maggie had arrived. And boy, did she arrive with a bang. On her second day, she had an epileptic fit and ended up in our health centre. It was the stress of the move. But she didn’t seem like the type of girl to get stressed. I remember memorising all the things I should do if I was around when she had another fit – start timing, clear away all objects within her reach, give her something to bite on.
Within days she’d amassed a following but I was her most loyal supporter. I’d been bullied at my last school, and since joining this school the year before, my chosen friend had left after being bullied herself. My confidence wasn’t exactly high, but Mags changed all that. She wasn’t a fulltime boarder; her mum had also come over from the States, in fact, that was the reason Maggie was here in the first place. They’d rented a little house down Aldwark. We’d eat chocolate chip pancakes there on a weekend; never with bacon as Maggie hated ‘English bacon’. Once we had some revolting ‘mac ‘n’ cheese’ she’d brought over with her. She loved it. She, and her mum, Meg, seemed so exotic.
Mags and I would take to her bedroom in the evenings. It was small – barely enough space for a double bed (in itself an unknown entity to me) and a single built-in wardrobe – but it was our space. We’d lie on that bed and listen to music: me flicking through Mags’ vast CD collection, her directing. ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ was a favourite, as well as ‘Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel’, anything from The Dave Matthews Band, or Dispatch. Only a few months older, my education at the hands of my transatlantic buddy had just begun.
She always signed her name ‘Mags’, and often inside a heart – a heart that only she drew in that particular way. Her hair and her arse were her trademarks. She was very proud that once, when walking down the street, a car had honked at her, rolled down the window, and a man had leaned out and said, “Damn girl. That ass belongs on a black girl!”
For Valentine’s Day, she sat and made, if not everyone in the class, then most of us, red hearts with our names written in glitter. I helped cut out the hearts. I still have mine. For World Book Day, she dressed up as Hedwig from Harry Potter in the softest grey jumper and cardboard wings tied on to her arms. Hedwig dies in the penultimate book. We didn’t know that then.
For her birthday, she had a treat trip to London where she had her hair cut and styled at Vidal Sassoon. She came back with perfectly defined bob-length ringlets and looked amazing. When we had somewhere to go or someone to impress, I’d spend hours running mousse through her curls to get precisely the right look.
For my birthday she surprised me – with a trip to London! We, and her mum, caught the train down (I in the throes of my first serious crush). We stayed at a little hotel somewhere, went to see ‘Kiss Me Kate’ and then Meg popped me on a first class train back to York. Mags and I bought matching (well, hers was pink and mine was blue) ‘Burberry’ scarves and posed outside The Royal Albert Hall. A few months later, we went to The Clothes Show together where we both fell in love with the same beautiful black lace haltertop – I look at it now and it wouldn’t even cover one of my boobs – graciously, I let her buy it. I opted instead for a red and black Chinese-style halter. Both tops were shown off at the Christmas disco.
Mags loved underwear – teeny tiny sexy thongs. That was an eye-opener! She also loved people – all people – and sometimes I couldn’t help feeling jealous, but it was ok, because at the end of the day, I knew that I was her best friend. I never doubted that for a second. Not long after Mags arrived, I started to board a few nights at school too. It was perfect. After lessons ended for the day, we’d head up to our room (which we shared with three other girls) and get changed into our own clothes, then it was time for tea. After tea came homework time, and we each sat at our desks under our bunkbeds and pretended to study while listening to music and chatting; after that it was free time.
Sometimes we’d squish into one bunkbed and listen to music on my treasured bright orange discman, other times we’d head to the common room and hang out with the other boarders, or there were boys to see and flirt with, and if we were specially lucky, we had permission to go into town – like that time we went to see the new Star Wars film and almost arrived back too late! We weren’t meant to go back into the boarding house once school had started, but sometimes you could get away with sneaking back inside for chocolate spread toasties.
I was better with Maggie – she brought me out of the shell I’d crawled into. I became more confident, louder – much louder! – and happier. Disaster struck when, as our first year together was drawing to a close – her mum announced her intention to return to the States. She’d only ever been here on sabbatical. We were devastated. Everyone loved Maggie; the school would happily have had her, my parents would have been happy to have her, and for a brief moment, it looked like she could stay. Then July came, school broke up, and Mags wasn’t coming back. When she left, I gave her a silver necklace that my brother had designed and made. It was inscribed on the back. I knew I’d never have another friend like her.
The new academic year came round and we both started back at school. She found it difficult – the lives of her old friends had carried on without her and she no longer knew where she fitted in – I’d lost my second best friend in as many years and did all I could to find a new friendship group to slot into, never very successfully. We talked on the phone (this was years before Facebook), but when I broke up with my boyfriend, it was painfully clear that she was on the other side of the Atlantic. I didn’t know any of the people she mentioned; I couldn’t even picture them. Gradually the phone calls became less. I never had the money to go and visit her, and our lives moved on, separately.
Five years later, and she and Meg are in the country for a fleeting visit but Maggie was not Maggie. Her epilepsy had got much worse. She’d been mugged a few weeks before while travelling in Europe, the stress greatly exacerbating her illness. The drugs she was on meant her words were slow, and she kept closing her eyes in order to give her brain time to process all the information it was receiving. She hated her medication. It restricted everything in her life. But she was positive – her doctor had something new for her to try when she got home.
A few months on, and I was in the computer cluster back at uni. A single post on my newsfeed caught my attention – a boy – James – from school had written on Maggie’s wall. The implication was clear – Maggie was no longer alive. I was in complete shock. Blindly I dialled the number for our old school. I told the receptionist my name, and she said that they’d been trying to get hold of me. I was put on hold while they located our former housemistress, and favourite teacher – Jenny Bailey. She came to the phone. She was upset. Maggie had died. She’d been playing Frisbee, then gone back home to her dad’s (her parents now divorced), gone for a nap, and never woken up. I remember tears streaming down my face. I remember disbelief. I remember guilt. This was my best friend – the only best friend I’d ever had when we came as a pair, not as a group – and now she was gone.
It’s been five years since Maggie died and I still feel both guilty and saddened by it all. Terribly sad that I lost my friend, sad that the world lost a great person, but guilty that I didn’t maintain our friendship; guilty that at the end, I didn’t really know the amazing woman she’d become. Try as I might, I just can’t let that go.
This is by no means the end of the story, or even half of it but I hope you get a sense of what a wonderful person Maggie was, and why I believe it’s important to highlight awareness of this illness.
A lot of you didn’t know Maggie but you all have someone that you love and maybe someone that you’ve lost touch with. Make sure they know that, or risk living with the regret.