I Texted My Friend For Years After She Died. Then I Received A 5-Word Reply That Left Me Shaken.

"For the first time since my dear friend had died five years earlier, she’d written back."
A woman texts on her phone while lying in bed.
A woman texts on her phone while lying in bed.
FreshSplash via Getty Images

I texted Becca as I went through the subway turnstile: “You won’t believe it, but ‘Sex and The City’ is back! But no Samantha, so you wouldn’t like it.” I added a grin emoji and tucked my phone in my bag. When I absent-mindedly took it out as I reached my stop, I almost dropped it in shock.

For the first time since my dear friend had died five years earlier, she’d written back.

“I’m sorry, but who is this?” the text read.

Becca and I met my first year in college at a craft fair where I was eyeing a bag. She’d noticed me holding it — deep sea green and entirely impractical — against myself.

“Go for it,” I heard someone behind me say.

I turned and saw a tall young woman with a cataract of blond curls falling across her shoulders.

“I shouldn’t,” I said.

“Oh, come on, just get it. Life is short.”

I was charmed.

She was a debutante from Texas; I am a Jew from Israel transplanted to the Northwest. But we became fast friends. I bought the bag — it was the first of many more risks that she would encourage me to take.

As I stood on the subway platform, passengers eddying around me, my gaze was frozen on the screen.

“Who is this?” I read again.

Shakily, I scrolled through my phone, and saw that it had been a few months since I’d last sent Becca a text. I typed out a new one: “This is my friend Becca’s number.”

“Well, it appears to be mine now,” came the response. “Please don’t text it again.”

A week after Becca’s funeral, a man dressed as Tweety Bird sat down next to me on the subway and pulled out a copy of The Wall Street Journal. It was the sort of incongruity that Becca loved, and I instinctively reached for my phone to text her.

Midway through typing out my description, I suddenly realized what I was doing. My finger lingered — trembling — above the screen, and then I resumed tapping. I looked over at my neighbor, unsure which of us was crazier: Tweety checking the stock tables, or me texting a dead person. But I pressed “send” anyway, and for a few moments my heart felt less like an anvil in my chest.

That day began an unexpected new conversation between us. A week later I texted her a photo of a double rainbow I’d seen over the Manhattan skyline, and a message: “I miss you.” Sometime after that, I texted her a picture of a new dress with a question mark. Each time I texted her, I would stare at the screen for a moment, waiting for the texts to turn blue.

I knew how it must appear to anyone who might look over, me holding my phone and waiting for a reply that was never going to come. I didn’t care. Becca had taught me that. “Everyone has secrets,” she’d said once, when her father had moved out on his 35th wedding anniversary.

We were born one year and five days apart, and, as different as our backgrounds were, sometimes we were mistaken for twins. But she was braver than me. Once she overheard a conversation I had with my father and said, “Man, neither of us won the parent lottery, did we?” She often said the things I wasn’t ready to say.

When I got pregnant, she was one of the first people I told.

“I know you don’t like kids, but you’ll love mine, right?” I asked her, nervously.

“I mean, no,” she answered. “Kids are annoying. But I’ll always love you.”

When I called to tell her I was unhappy in my marriage but felt unable to leave, she cut me off: “You said you want to get out. Forget what other people think — do you want to, or do you need to?”

After years of wrestling with my marriage, that one question clarified things in an instant.

“Need,” I answered.

Her own life careened from job to job — publishing, event-planning, then, briefly, a handbag business.

“She has a new career this month,” her husband told me over dinner one week. “But you love me,” she piped in brightly. She was right: Everyone loved her.

Then, one day, she told me that she was sick. Having ignored nagging back pain for months, she’d finally gone to a doctor and was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

All of Becca’s friends and family were numb with shock — but she wasn’t. She threw herself into living. She made me take a printmaking class with her and joined four book clubs. “There are just so many books left to read,” she told me one day when I went with her to pick up a new stack at Barnes & Noble. I pretended to need a book in another aisle so she wouldn’t see me cry.

After she died, I could still hear her irreverent voice in my ears, so it didn’t seem all that strange to carry our conversation over to text. Becca got the texts I didn’t dare share with anyone else: “I think I’m going to sleep with him even though it might end”; “I hate being a parent today”; “I’m not sure what I want anymore, I’m so depressed”; “I just ordered seven dresses, and then returned them all.”

When I texted her how much I hated breastfeeding the second time around, I could hear her respond: “Get the kid off the boob!” So, I did.

I lied to Becca only once. “He looked miserable,” I texted after watching her husband remarry. I knew her well enough to know that she wouldn’t have been magnanimous — she’d have hated the whole thing, from the mushy vows to the peach tablecloths. He’d been through hell during and after her illness, and I was relieved that he had found some solace. But I also remembered what Becca had looked like on her wedding day: She was a human lightbulb emanating the kind of happiness that leaves everyone who encounters it speechless. That memory hurt. So, I lied.

A year into our one-way conversation, I Googled “how long does it take to get a phone number reassigned?” and learned that if after 90 days the number hasn’t been given away, it probably won’t be. That’s why it came as such a shock when I received a reply from Becca’s number.

Standing on the subway platform, I felt a strange mixture of surprise, grief and anger, as if someone had snatched her phone out of her hands. Indignant, I tapped out my reply: “I’m sorry but my friend is dead, and this is the only way I have had to communicate with her.”

I pushed down the sob welling in my chest, tucked my phone in my bag, and strode off. Somewhere between the platform and the street above, I heard the ding of an incoming text and pulled out my phone.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” it read. “But please don’t text again.”

It’s been seven months since I last texted Becca. I miss those conversations, because even if she wasn’t writing back, they kept me tethered to her. Yet those five words I finally received back ― “But please don’t text again” ― were exactly what I needed to hear. And, honestly, I think it’s what Becca would have texted me too, if she could. She’d have noticed that texting her had become a kind of crutch. Though it had begun by texting her life’s absurdities, over time my texts had shifted to telling her my worst fears. I’d stopped risking saying those things aloud, and she’d have hated that.

“You’re still here. You’re still alive — take advantage of it,” she would say. She was always good at recognizing when things had outlived their usefulness; she didn’t cling the way that I do. I know that she would want me to move on now. Not to stop missing her ― or to stop talking to her and telling her about my life ― but to continue living my life because Becca believed in living fully awake. She helped me live mine that way, too.

Note: Names and some details have been changed to protect individuals mentioned in this essay.

Sarah Gundle, Psy.D., is a psychologist in private practice and an assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She is currently writing a book about breakups.

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