When I went to bed I wasn’t expecting to be up until after 3am. If I would’ve known, I could’ve taken a sleeping aid or worked on a project, making the last five plus hours worthwhile.
Instead, memories swirl around in my emotional head. Not intentionally, mind you, quite the opposite, actually. (Did that sentence make sense? I don’t care. It’s 3:23am, my Hall Pass for incorrect grammar.)
Today is the birth date of a sweet friend, Tommy. With it brings a lot of happy memories, of our friendship and time together, but also a lot of aching sadness (stuff I can’t seem to shake). It’s the first birth date since his death, and an epiphany of why so many people remember the special dates of loved ones, announcing it for the world to know; speaking directly to the deceased through Facebook updates, blog posts, and tweets.
That used to confuse me. Do they think their loved one can read that? Why can’t they tune out the date and replace it with good memories? How do they expect to move past the pain if they keep dwelling on someone who isn’t here? It’s been X long, shouldn’t they have moved on by now?
I’m glad I never said anything about it when I’d see that stuff. I kept my mouth shut. (“What? YOU kept your mouth shut,” you question in shock.) I’m ashamed for those thoughts. I was arrogant that I knew better. It’s not that I know better, it’s that I don’t know, period.
Now I get it.
Memories don’t have a shoebox you can stick them in and hide deep into your closet for when it’s convenient. There isn’t an on/off switch, giving you the power to decide when to deal and when to ignore.
No. The stuff that swirls in your head comes and goes as it pleases, a stray cat of thoughts that stops in when he’s hungry, without warning; only this time I can’t seem to shoo the cat away so I can get to sleep. He lingers, rubbing his body back and forth across my calf, mewing just for the sake of it.
The last time, which was the first time, someone my age died unexpectedly, I was barely out of high school. His name was Dan and he was a cutie who lived a few hours away in the middle of nowhere. Rex, my college buddy, took me with him one weekend to see his family there and hang out with Dan.
We only knew each other a few months, but if you know me, you know I am notorious for making connections with strangers that turn into seriously meaningful friendships, lifelong relationships.
Rex and I had a falling out (probably because Dan and I spent more time with each other and less with Rex. Sorry, Rex, I was a girl and sometimes we can’t explain ourselves.) So when he left a voice message asking me to call him back, “It’s important,” he said, I was reluctant to call because I thought it was a trick.
“There was an accident. Dan is dead.”
I remember raising my voice in a private office at work and calling him a jerk for playing a prank like that, snipping back that it’s not funny. His voice softened as he explained what happened the night before.
It was a race against some friends and Dan took a shortcut down by the river. Going fast enough, he should’ve been able to get ahead of the other car who stayed on the upper main road, but instead he lost control and ended upside down in the river, in only 4′ of pretty calm water. The beat up yellow pick-up’s seatbelt got stuck or he couldn’t get the door open, I can’t remember. But it wasn’t until the sun came up that anyone would notice there had been an accident. By then it was too late.
My parents didn’t understand why I left work in the middle of the day or that I was taking a couple days off to go back to the middle of nowhere with Rex (we instantly made up, emergencies can do that, I guess) to attend the funeral.
“You barely knew him, it’s not like he’s family,” they exclaimed.
Thankfully my boss* insisted I go or I might’ve been persuaded otherwise. Going to the funeral, spending time with Dan’s family, having Rex back, was all necessary. Whether I knew him long enough, deep enough, or whatever, I needed that experience to heal from the “what could have been” and to have a swift lesson in mortality.
At that point in my life I felt invincible (as most of us do through our 20′s, until we’re slapped with reality) because only elderly people I knew died. I hadn’t known someone my own age that died or had a terrible accident. Those started soon after (beginning with my older cousin who committed suicide from the quality of life altering effects of his motorcycle accident five years prior. Canadians on holiday pulled out of a business parking lot into the main road, smashing into him as he came around the corner).
Until you go through the pain of losing someone you love, or maybe just someone you relate to, you do NOT know how someone feels, what can help them get over it, or the different ways people handle death.
I think I finally get it.
It’s different for everyone. Just like with friendship, love, and anger, you might react differently than I. She might react differently than that guy over there. There isn’t a standard period of time for mourning, a normal way of handling sadness, or a switch that can turn off the memories when they aren’t flooding in at a convenient time.
Hopefully today will be fine. Maybe I will get some sleep now (it’s 4:45am). Whatever happens, I am kind of proud of myself for reaching an epiphany of compassion for how others grieve. Guess I don’t know everything after all (typed with my tongue in cheek).
*To this day, over 15 years later, I have a soft spot for my favorite boss EVER and his family. Through our relationship he swapped me his nice Mercedes for my little truck so he could get stuff from the hardware store (I was FREAKING out and SOOO careful), I babysat his adorable kids, went on a trip across the state with his family which resulted in my only private yacht ride (it was awesome), he taught me how to vote in my first election, his smokin’ hot wife took me under her wing, and he always treated me with respect and kindness. I miss that guy. (Psst, Theresa, pass that along, will ya? :)
P.S. See, there are people with whom I just click. It’s not forced or explainable, it just happens. I don’t know why I keep trying to validate this point.