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Host Intro: Today marks four years since commentator Ariel Ritchin lost his friend Val. Or, rather, mostly lost her.

I first noticed Val, I mean really noticed her, in our high school chemistry class. She was sitting in the front row a few feet from our teacher, doodling with a passion I don’t think I had for anything at age fifteen.

When the teacher saw, she was aghast: “It’s… it’s… it almost seems like you don’t care,” she said. Val put her pencil down, looked up and said, “Well, that’s because I don’t.”

I was hooked. I told all my friends about this little girl with braces and a loud mouth. “How could she have said that?” “And then she just kept on drawing like nothing happened!”

That’s just how she was. And she still got an A in the class.

Val was brutally honest. Feisty. She used words like a boxer might, jabbing, moving, sharp. We all wanted to be around her.

Val was quick. Athletic. Her senior year, she was the top goal scorer in New York City’s high school soccer league. But it was her mind that was the quickest.

We graduated, but didn’t grow apart. Every time we saw each other during college breaks, it was just like old times.

Then, senior year, “the accident.” That’s what we all call it.

Val was riding with friends down 1-95, heading to Miami, when their SUV flipped over. Her classmate, sitting next to Val in the back seat, was thrown through the windshield and died. Val was asleep at the time of the crash, and had to be airlifted to the hospital.

And she stayed that way for awhile. Asleep. In a coma.

A few days later I spoke with a friend’s father. I still had hope, until he told me it was over. So, I believed him.

My old circle of friends exchanged calls constantly. I spoke to Val’s mom a lot and / I remember the day I first mentioned my friend in the past tense.

But then, three weeks later, she woke up!

My friend Josh was the first to visit her – they’d dated for three years and broken up just 18 months before. But Val didn’t remember. She thought he was still her boyfriend.

But over the next few months her memory improved. Very, very slowly. She went in and out of doctor’s offices, but didn’t take a lot of their advice. We all felt like she needed more help, but didn’t know how to give it to her.

It’s been four years now. Val’s doing much better. She’s playing soccer again – in a league actually. She just started grad school and is making new friends of her own. And these new friends, they can’t tell that the accident ever happened.

And so it feels unfair to say this but, Val isn’t the same person I used to know. She’s perfectly nice, just someone else. Someone who doesn’t remember a lot of what we talk about. She still tells the truth, but her honesty, it doesn’t sting anymore. She laughs politely, agrees by default.

And I guess this is why it’s painful to be around her. I can’t stop comparing this girl to the one I knew.

I don’t see Val as often these days, and part of me feels guilty about that.

But should I? Why can’t I just celebrate the fact that she woke up at all?

Maybe, like everyone, she just, changed. Grew in her own way. Isn’t she entitled to that?

When I’m with her, sometimes I see flashes of the way she used to be. She’ll make a clever joke or say something beautifully inappropriate.

I think the old Val is still in there somewhere. And even if she’s not, well, maybe it’s just time to make a new friend.

Back announce: Ariel is meeting Val for lunch on Sunday.

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