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I’ve been heavy into my spring cleaning rituals these past few weeks. It’s amazing what you find when you dig into every corner of your home – even when you went through the same motions a year ago.

This spring I decided to finally tackle my CD collection. I’m not ready to part with the CDs themselves, but I can part with the plastic jewel cases protecting wafer thin CDs. Baby steps.

I placed each CD into its own white CD envelope. I even emptied out the large zippered case that held my “classics”, including TLC, Mariah Carey (circa. 1995), Boyz II Men, and Aaliyah. After the case was emptied, I reached my hand into the deep side pockets just in case I’d shoved something in there years ago.

I was secretly hoping to find money, but instead I found a photo.

The picture was nearly 20 years old. It was taken with a Polaroid i-Zone instant film camera. It was THE camera to have in 1999 if you were a teenage girl. You could take a picture and the camera would instantly print the photo out on a sticker with a colorful border. The produced picture was about 1 inch by 2 inches – a glorified postage stamp – but these little photos were treasures to be shared.

I cradled my discovery as if it was as delicate as a butterfly wing. The photo featured my friend Carmel waving at the camera. It’s a cute photo, but it’s particularly special because two weeks before I uncovered this little gem, Carmel passed away.

I have a lot of photos of Carmel and me from over the years. We met in high school and became fast friends, but now I realize, these photos are all I have left, and there will be no new ones.

Carmel died of stage IV stomach cancer exactly six months before her 34th birthday. She was diagnosed in January, but previous illnesses made her too weak for treatments. Her doctors weren’t optimistic, but Carmel wasn’t one to dwell on the negative. She was always focused on finding the bright side.

I decided to latch on to her optimism. I knew the outlook was grim, but I wished for a miracle anyway. I was hoping to visit her in Utah this summer. I just figured there would be time.

Despite my attempts to keep my rose-colored glasses firmly in place, I knew deep down she wouldn’t make it to the end of the year, and I tried to prepare myself for the worst, knowing that I may never see my friend alive again.

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But there’s really no way to be ready for something like this. This is the first time I’ve lost a close friend to cancer. It’s the first time one of my closest friends has died – period. I feel like I have a hole in my chest. It’s a dull aching pain – a broken heart, I suppose.

News of her passing woke me up from a Sunday afternoon nap. Our friend Amie – yes, baby shower Amie – called to deliver the news. We talked for a long while. We laughed. We cried. The three musketeers were now two.

I had a dinner reservation to celebrate my birthday later that day. My husband asked if I still wanted to go, and I said yes with hesitation. Carmel would have hated me canceling my belated birthday celebration to sit and blubber incoherent nothings into a fistful of tissues. She’d say have an extra glass of wine on her behalf, even if she didn’t drink.

Carmel was one of the good ones. She loved life and was friendly to a fault. She treated everyone she met as if they were about to be lifelong friends, and I’m so glad I took her up on the invitation. Her friendship has been a gift for more than half my life, but even if she’s gone, I will keep her alive in my heart, even if it’s a bit broken.

Samie Hartley is the Napa Valley Register online editor. Simple & Sassy runs every other Sunday. She can be reached at shartley@napanews.com.

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Online Editor/Calendar Editor

Samie Hartley is the Napa Valley Register online editor. Her column Simple & Sassy runs on alternating Sundays.