Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Near-Life Experience

It was six years ago tonight that my ex-boyfriend's best friend called me at college to ask a favor. Dave was depressed, Kevin said, & he was starting to worry. Would I call & check in on him, just to say hello? I obliged, somewhat begrudgingly - exes aren't exactly mood brighteners. Would he even want to hear from me? I called, but when I couldn't reach him, I didn't try again.

Two days later, he was dead.

I have a notoriously terrible memory, but I will always remember exactly where I was & what I was doing when the world fell apart. The littlest details, like what I had for dinner that night & the exact sentence that broke the news. I remember who answered the door when I finally stumbled to my sorority house in tears & who tried unsuccessfully to consoled me, all the people I called to share the bad news. It is maybe the only night of my life that is memorized practically in its entirety, from terrible start to terrible finish.

I remember verbatim my conversation with his mother when I arrived at her home the next day. "My baby died, Kate," she wailed, & the others who grieved around me as I sat in a corner, cross-legged & alone, trying to make sense of the letter he left behind. The stranger who came to comfort me as I wept quietly to the tune of Jimmy Eat World songs. The phone call to my rabbi from a gas station parking lot because I didn't know who else could comprehend the enormity of how badly it hurt.

I remember what I wore to the funeral & who was there, who spoke & what about & the name of the local mega-church pastor who led the service ineptly &, ironically, without nearly as much soul as Dave had. The trinkets the many mourners left in his casket - a watch & pennies & the mood ring I left behind & the paper hearts we buried him with on Valentines Day. The' collared flannel shirt he was dressed in to cover the unspeakable bruising to his neck; the way his pale lips looked waxy & too flat & his hair was parted at the wrong angle. The sappy music that played at his service & how much he would have hated it, the song that came on in my car as my friend Sean & I drove to the cemetery. The rain that fell mercilessly down on us as we said our final goodbyes.

I didn't eat for nearly a week, but I remember the Sonic grilled cheese I chose as my first meal when I suddenly realized I was starving. The pile of letters & Valentines that awaited me when I returned to school, piled upon my desk in place of awkward spoken condolences from sorority sisters who didn't know what to say. The classes I couldn't finish & the incompletes I took, allowing myself to play the pity card with compassionate professors because I literally could not bring myself to put any additional effort into living my life correctly or sanely or with any semblance of normalcy.

When Dave died, my very first thought was that I was angry - angry that he went first, that he ruined my plans. Angry that I couldn't do the same for fear of looking like a copycat. Angry that he left me behind before I could bring myself to do it. What would his life have been like had our timing been reversed? It's something I still can't bring myself to think of.

I remember with excruciating precision the exact details of his passing & the events surrounding it, but I can recall almost nothing of my own pain, of the crippling depression that brought me so close to the edge in the months both before & after his death. As soon as he died, there was no exit for me: I knew I would be staying. That's not to say the pain disappeared because, oh, God, it didn't. It went on for a long, long time, so long that I ruined friendships & relationships & all kinds of important things as I raged through life in a debilitating haze. I believed there was a light at the end of the tunnel but try as I might, I still couldn't see past the unbearable darkness.

I don't say it often because, memories or not, it's a painful & sometimes even embarrassing truth to bear: Dave's death saved my life. The potential implications of that sentence terrify me, even now as I write it all down - what will be the repercussions of my admitting it aloud? Will it come back somehow to hurt me, derail me? But I won't be quieted by a stigma that would keep me from acknowledging how far I have come & how much I have changed in my quest to accomplish the simplest & most difficult of tasks - staying alive. It feels infinitely selfish to say so, to dare to feel thankful to be alive only because he is dead, but knowing the reality of the state I was in, I can say with confidence that had he stayed, I likely would not have, if only because I had no idea the magnitude of the impact that such an action would have had on the people who loved me.

Why am I telling you this? I don't tell people this. I don't want your pity & I don't need your encouragement. But I want you to know that, as cliche as the phrase has recently become, it does indeed get better, & I'm a testament to that. Six years later, the dark, twisty mess that was my life is unbelievably, inconceivably beautiful - but only because I have made it so. My life is beautiful because he made me recognize that it is so. My life is beautiful because his life was beautiful, & in watching the tragic end of someone whose existence held so much promise, I vowed to myself I would not give up on my own.

I'm not perfect & I'm not perpetually happy & there is still plenty to be fixed & bettered & changed. But had I taken my own life at 20, as Dave did - as I had seriously considered doing - I would never have known the beauty of my life as it is now, the beauty of life in general. I would never have experienced the rush of accomplishment that comes with realizing you've stamped out your own darkness, that you've stood up to it & announced that you will not be taken down after all. The victory of looking back on who you were & comparing it with who you have become & acknowledging not just that you're alive but that you're finally really living.

I miss him every single day, even after all these years. I miss him not just as an abstract concept of a young man whose brief life so meaningfully impacted my own, but as a real person, as an artist & musician, as my high school sweetheart & my first love. He changed my life, & now I try my damndest to live it in honor of him - happily & passionately, as I am confident he would have done had he made it through to this side with me.

"Do we have the strength to make it there?
Would you think less of me if I said yes?"
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