When I was in high school, I lost a friend to a freak car accident. The news traveled fast. Seth was one of those guys you loved regardless of who you were, what group you were in, or how you knew him. I don’t have the statistics, but I’d say that 3/4 of my high school knew within hours. This, mind you, was before cell phones, text messages, and Facebook. We just used a regular old land line.
I don’t remember the person who called to tell me. I remember running downstairs, hysterically crying, and screaming to my mother, “Seth’s dead!” Not expecting to hear anything like this, my mother initially looked at me as though I were speaking in foreign tongues.
I tried again. “Seth. Benedict. Died. In a car accident. He died. He’s dead.”
She shook her head. “But you didn’t know him all that well Katie.”
Seriously? A friend of mine, someone I knew, someone I sat near in class, someone with whom I had shared laughs and jokes and chemistry notes is now not on this earth anymore, and that is all? I didn’t KNOW him that well?
My response to her comment was throwing myself against the refrigerator and landing in a heap of tears on the cold laminated kitchen floor.
It was November. The burnt orange and vibrant red leaves had fallen. They were now drying up on the ground, slowly decaying before winter’s wretched bite could get to them. It must have rained that day, because those same leaves were plastered to the road in a slick collage of faded autumn remnants. There was no way for the vehicle to stop that day, but I’ll tell you one thing, the world did.
Inside our little small town school we struggled that following day to make sense of the truth. Most of us hadn’t previously been acquainted with death or loss-many of us were privileged, even if we didn’t know it then. Our parents had done a good job of making sure that we didn’t experience this kind of pain and disbelief. But you simply cannot control the world around your children after a certain point. At some time, the outside forces are going to impact your children and there’s nothing you can do about it.
You’re also going to get to a point where your children are forming relationships and having experiences without you-experiences that you don’t recognize, friendships that might not register on that radar of yours.
My mom was right in one sense-Seth didn’t come over to my house every day. I didn’t call him on the phone at night and tell him my deepest secrets. But every day, he stood outside our chemistry classroom until the bell rang, hands behind his back, smiling and greeting everyone in the hallway. How could she have known how funny he was? How chemistry was all of a sudden not boring with him there? How he was so kind to absolutely everyone, restoring our faith in humanity through those brutally cruel high school years?
That next day, we ran our fingers along the lockers, with their peeling paint, wondering about the meaning of it all. We huddled in small groups, talking quietly amidst puffy eyes and soggy overused tissues. The teachers and guidance counselors wandered the halls and cried over the loss of one of their students. They mourned at the loss of innocence in all of our faces. We knew now, all of us knew it…we were no longer immortal.
My mom worked really hard throughout my childhood to shelter me from everything she could possibly hide me from. I sometimes wonder if her comment was meant to help me rationalize the experience. She, as a parent, was obviously not ready (who would ever be) to metabolize the loss of a young community member. Legitimately, she also was not prepared to comfort me. But still, it was not the right thing to say.
As a parent now, I see how parenting is 50% trying to prepare yourself for the next thing to come, and 50% admitting that you’ll never actually be prepared for anything. As an adult, I actually find comfort in knowing that I can’t prepare myself for so many of the experiences that will tumble down my road. Rather, I must find the tools I need to cope with different circumstances.
Seth’s death still affects me on almost a daily basis. Most often, however, I choose to remember him, and not the loss of him, so that I can start the day with a smile on my face, and with a little more compassion for those around me.