Five years ago today my friends and I learned that a wonderful girl in our year – Sian Butcher – had lost her fight with cancer and had passed away at just 14 years of age. She was our friend, and about the kindest person I’ve ever met. She was there for me when I felt like I had no one, and when people were horrible to her she just seemed to wave away their insults like they were nothing. She cared for anyone who needed someone, more often than not with some sort of funny remark or joke at hand, and she was simply the last person in our school who should have been dealt the hand she was. It’s something that still gets to me even now.
I feel a whole cocktail of different emotions when I think of Sian. I feel sad because she was so young when she found out she had cancer, and far too young to die. I still feel the same anger I felt when she told me about the small minority of people at our school who laughed and jeered, “Sian’s got cancer in her arse!” like cancer is just some big joke that can be removed as easily as an ingrown hair or a mole.
But most of all I feel a whole lot of guilt and regret because I wasn’t as good a friend as she deserved.
That’s the thing about Sian. She was smart, caring, funny, and had a calm aura about her. But she was also really under-appreciated, and I still hate myself for the fact that I was one of many who didn’t appreciate her as much as we should have. I don’t know why I was that way. Neither of us were popular, nor did we care about getting in with that sort of crowd. We could’ve been more than just friends through Maths class and catching up because of the odd bumping-into-one-another near the IT block. We could’ve been the best of friends if I hadn’t been so…I don’t know. Maybe it’s all in my head and it’s just the way things panned out, but there’ll always be a part of me that will think, “What if I’d made more of an effort with her?”
I remember a few months before she died she came to visit us all at school. It had been over a year since most of us had seen her. My friends and I were in the lunch hall when a girl in our year came bursting in telling us that Sian was on the middle yard. I remember leaving all my things and racing off to find her in her wheelchair, surrounded by a crowd of teachers and pupils. She’d had to have one of her legs amputated, but she was more pissed off that she’d had to lose her long hair due to chemotherapy – typical Sian.
I thought I was getting a second chance to be a friend she deserved.
I’d given her my number and we were keeping in touch after that. We’d made plans for me to visit her and I’d bought her a pair of fingerless gloves that matched a skull bandanna she’d gotten from one of the teachers the day she came in. We’d been catching up in a classroom and she tied that one around her head and the other one – a star print bandanna – around her remaining leg, saying something about how it could be the latest fashion. I had made a silent pact there and then to stop being a sort-of-there friend and show her how loved she was, and how appreciated she was.
I received a text from her saying she was too unwell for me to visit, and a month or so later she was gone. I took her gloves to her funeral and placed them on her grave with a letter to her and her family.
What’s comforting to know is that she was Sian right to the very end. Her coffin was biodegradable (she always did love nature) with a design of dinosaurs in the jungle, and her grave is marked with a wooden cross, surrounded by windmills and fairies and other things that people have put there that remind them of her. It’s the most beautiful thing to stand out in the graveyard, yet also the most heart wrenching.
Her death hit us all really hard; I know that even those who had bullied her or had even just once said something cruel to her regretted it probably still do now. Our school have a bench and a bird feeder on the grounds as a lasting memorial for her, which I think she would’ve loved. A good friend of hers at school started a Facebook group for all who knew her so that we can post messages, photos and memories – just remember her. And every birthday, Christmas, New Year and…2nd March, the page is filled with loving messages to her, or the lyrics to one of her favourite songs: Good Riddance (Time of Your Life) by Green Day.
But I will always be haunted by the what ifs.
I know that Sian understands and forgives me for the silly, selfish little girl I was back in high school. But I want her and her family to know that although I didn’t bully her, and I was never cruel to her, I was still not good enough to her and I will always regret that. I know I can’t change the past, and I know I’m too late for Sian, but I hope I have proven – and will continue to prove – how sorry I am, and that I have changed so that I will never under-appreciate someone ever again.
And to my friends who read this: I don’t want pity, or reassurance that I was a good person in high school or that I’m a good person now or anything like that. I just want you to know that I love every single one of you with all my heart, and if you ever feel like I don’t appreciate you feel free to tell me. I don’t want anyone to feel like that ever again.
In the meantime, I will be listening to the song that was played at her funeral, and remembering the girl who I feel honoured to call my friend, and who deserved so much more from life and from us.
Rest in peace, Sian.