February 8, 2008

I think pretzels and popcorn in the same bowl are a marvelous snack.  I’m much too old to be thinking that, but I’m going to throw that out there anyway.

So. The worst day of the year … it wasn’t so bad today.  My coworkers made it profoundly better, and although they had no idea, our silly Friday was a gift.

There is a certain admirable arrogance of youth, before you’re touched by loss.  A presumed invincibility.  But, as it’s known to do, without rhyme, reason, logic, or concern for what is fair, there are times that the unthinkable happens, and in that moment, the naivety of youth is shattered, and we become adult.

For me, it happened 5 years ago on the morning of February 8, 2003.  It was a Saturday.  I woke up and took a shower.  I was using mint shampoo, I clearly remember, as I would form an aversion to mint shampoo after that day.  The bathroom mirror steamed up and I drew a smiley face on it with my finger.  I went into the kitchen with a towel wrapped around my hair and looked out on the backyard.  There had been a snowfall and tiny footprints lead up to my back door.  A cat probably, and I wondered what tiny beast had trodden there, to peer into the house during the night.  Everyone else was sleeping that morning.  I loved those days, to be the first one awake in the morning, especially in such a mid-winter morning.  On days like that, when the world is covered in a blanket of snow and the sun is just starting to rise – turning the sky pink behind trees in the distance – you feel truly feel like a witness to some secret between you and nature.

I stood at the back door watching the crystalized world spread out before me, barefoot, hair wrapped in a towel, eating cheerios and raspberries.  And then a phone call came.  It was too early for a phone call.  And if you’ve had the misfortune of that call, you understand.  You don’t need to answer it, because some part of your core, some part of  you – has already received the message your ears don’t want to hear.

Nick was spectacular.  I don’t say it because he’s dead.  I don’t say it in the way people always talk about the dead.  I said it in life, and I’ll say it in death.  It’s a fact.  Every time I talk about him, I feel like I’m generalizing everything into a cliche obituary.   How do you summarize a life that touched so many people?

I can tell you the facts.  He was supposed to leave to study abroad on February 11.  On February 8 he decided to go snowmobiling with his best friend and his best friend’s father.  (Nick was not one to say no to adventure).  At some point, his friend stopped around a curve in the trail and when Nick came around the bend he swerved to avoid hitting him, and was ejected from the snowmobile.  He died in the snow, surrounded by his best friend and his best friend’s father, as the life flight arrived.

There are a lot of lies we tell ourselves when someone dies.  It’s the only way we know how to survive the hurt, self-deception.  They tell you that “time heals all wounds,” but it’s untrue.  The loss we experience is a bit like a tree planted in the floor of our home.  We learn to live around it.  Decorate around it.  Step around it.  But there it is.  A tree in the living room.

The last time I saw Nick I was driving away from the University.  I had spent the weekend there and he was nowhere to be found before I left.  I was bummed not to see him, but had to head back to my hometown, as a huge snowstorm was predicted.  As I was pulling out, I saw Nick walking, and thought to myself, “Should I stop and say bye?  No.  I’ll see him when he gets back from New Zealand.”

1 week later I had my chance to say good-bye, but in a very different way that I had expected.

The irony is that it didn’t snow that day, on my drive home.  It was beautiful, sunny.  A few days later the snow would arrive (the same snow he would later die on) and while a hundred people huddled together to mourn at the funeral home, it snowed like I’d never seen.

I remember weird things from those days, random things.  A flaw in the alignment of the floral wallpaper.  The feel of his father’s sweater.  Sunflowers in the corner of the room.  Sunflowers that refused to bloom.  Sunflowers that refused to smile.  The way they had fixed his hair in a way he never would have worn it, and it made me smile to know he would be horrified-yet-amused, too.

It took us 45 minutes to drive a mile the night of the wake.  I spent that night at one of his friend’s house.  A friend I had never met, who opened his home to me and several other strangers all brought together by tragedy.  We spent the evening reminiscing, watching old videos of Nick, comforting each other, and coming to terms with the simultaneous closing of a chapter of our lives.

Losing Nick was the greastest tragedy and also the greatest gift of my life thus far.  It taught me to face impermanence and to be brave.  It taught me to love people NOW.  It taught me that I am never entitled to a tomorrow or a later or another day, and that each of those is a gift.  I love here and now and without fear or hesitation.  If I have learned anything, it is that regrets don’t come from loving someone too much, but in holding back.

I spoke at Nick’s funeral, and anyone who knows me realizes that’s a major thing, as I do not public speak.  In my speech I referred to one of Nick’s favorite books, The Catcher in the Rye, and a quote that summarized my spectacular friend (in both life and death) better than I ever could:

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,'” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thou-sands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

Nick, I love you and miss you each day.


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