I lost one of my best friends on this day in 1995. I prefer to say "lost" because it sounds like I've just misplaced her, and really, she'll be coming along any moment now, shaking her head and scolding me for not calling her.
But I can only fool myself for so long. Even I wouldn't have lost her for 10 whole years.
Today marks 10 years since Ann died, with absolutely no warning, of a pulmonary embolism. She left behind two wonderful parents, three very cool sisters, a junior-high school full of co-workers and students, and about a zillion friends. Including me, who just happened to be lucky enough to be sitting behind her in freshman gym class when she turned around and asked me if I wanted to share a gym locker with her.
She was just 28. We'd been friends since she was 14. A full half of a very short life.
I wrote the following column for the St. Paul Pioneer Press one year after Ann died. I still miss her every day.
Grief to be part of her annual ritual, without Fairest of companions
by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
I have spent half my life going to the State Fair with Ann. This year I will not.
My dear friend Ann Biales of St. Paul died very unexpectedly last October of a pulmonary embolism. She was just 28. I have missed her in a thousand ways in the 10 months since that day, but during the State Fair I feel the hurt as sharp as ever.
It would be tough, I think, to explain the magic of the Minnesota State Fair to someone who didn't grow up here. The Fair is something you grow into, something you appreciate in different ways as you get older.
The first thing I remember loving about the State Fair was the Spin-Paint booth. It seemed I spent hours frowning at my square of white cardboard, holding ketchup-type squeeze bottles of paint, spinning the paper, squirting the paint, watching the whirls of color deepen and dry. When I was too old to love the Spin-Paint booth anymore, I knew I had passed one of those weird invisible barriers in life, something that marks growing up even more clearly than graduation or marriage.
Starting high school at Derham Hall in 1981, I didn't know anyone. When Ann befriended me that first week, it was as if the barrier gave way and everything became so much easier. We had so much in common that we weren't at all surprised to learn that we were both fanatics for the State Fair.
The first Fair we attended together was in 1982, right after beginning our sophomore year. We went with two other friends. The experience was so memorable that we wrote down little snippets of memories from it, which we later used in our senior memory book. Mine says "Karl the chiro." I remember Ann and I rolling our eyes and whispering to each other as our two friends signed up for a free back examination simply because the chiropractor manning the booth was cute.
Ann was a rare friend, one who didn't mind hanging out in the 4-H building for hours just because I might see the 4-H'er I had a crush on. We tolerated each other's Fair eccentricities -- I always had to swing through the Horticulture building to gawk at the crop art; she always wanted to get her rings cleaned for a quarter by the woman selling jewelry cleaner.
One year we tried to eat only foods that were served on sticks -- from cheese to corn dogs to pineapple. Ann balked only at the cream cheese-covered pickle.
We were both Democrats to the core, and no matter how thirsty we were, we skirted the free water at the Republican Party booth and waited until we found the Democratic fountain.
We were the kind of kids who were taught by our parents to be shocked at the Midway sideshows. People shouldn't be exhibited because of their physical differences, we learned, and so we never paid $4 to peer at Tiny Tina or the Lobster Boy or even the joyously tacky Headless Centerfold.
But once, just a few years ago, we did decide to take in a cheesy Midway act. We picked the Girl-to-Gorilla transformation, possibly the oldest and lamest sideshow there is. In the jam-packed tent, five-foot-five-inch Ann couldn't see a thing above the heads and bodies in front of her, and at five-eight, I could see only by standing on the very tips of my toes. I played interpreter for her, shouting out "there's a woman's shape on the screen ... now it's changing ...now it's a gorilla ... now the screen's going up ... now there's a guy in a gorilla suit pounding his chest ... YOW! He's breaking out!" And we scattered for the exits with the rest of the suckers.
As we progressed through high school and college, our group of friends widened. One year we found ourselves at the Fair with about 10 other people. Instead of being fun, it was awful. No one could agree on what to see and no one wanted to spend the same amount of time anywhere.
With us that year was a friend who had never been to the Fair before, and after that experience, declared she didn't like it and would never go again. Ann and I were flabbergasted. Didn't like the Fair? How could you not like the Fair? That was like not liking sunshine, or days off. We were Fair faithful.
Despite its sunshine and hot August nights, there has always been something about the Fair that reminds me of the shortness of life.
Colder air blows in with the night wind, and it is as if I can see a big calendar page changing over from the blooming, growing season of summer to autumn and then winter, when first the leaves and then the sun begin to die. The Fair lasts for such a short time and then it is gone overnight. There is a lesson in there somewhere if I were smart enough to learn it.
I will go to the Fair this year, but something will be missing.
I will be the one standing in the middle of the Midway , watching the little kids at the Spin-Paint booth and the giggling teens flirting in packs. I will look at where the Girl-to-Gorilla booth used to stand. I will check out the crop art and get my rings cleaned. I will be the one marveling at the circle of life.
I will be with Ann there as much as I could be in any church.
--published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 29, 1996