I put on what I thought was a brave face while mindlessly walking into the lobby area of the gym that allowed us to store our belongings. I clutched onto the mozzarella sticks I insisted I was going to eat as if they were the answer to my confused prayers. It was a blur. I didn’t comprehend it then but perhaps it is what people refer to as shock. I was in a state of shock. The girls surrounding me tried their best to look sympathetic. They said they were sorry. I lifted a crisp mozzarella stick to my lips only to return it to its grease stained container unscathed. This is not real life. I looked up to find my coach eyeing me with a puzzled look due to my presence. “Go home,” were the only words she spoke, and so I did.
The final bell echoed through the vacant halls signaling the end of last period. Cheer practice wasn’t until 5pm so I knew there was no reason to rush to my locker in the never-ending sea of students rapidly flooding the previously uninhabited hallways. The only thought that swirled in my head was the question of what I was going to select as a snack from the vending machine before practice while I sat waiting for the dreaded workout to begin. There was a bit of math homework assigned that I decided I could do while waiting for practice to start, not that it was all that hard to complete. Math was not necessarily my strongest subject but thankfully I had a math teacher that considered us holding up a piece of paper when our name was called completed homework. Unfortunately for me, that was only about 20 percent of our grade. Although I ended the semester with a below average score, it was considered a passing grade which I was content with. Did I mention I was not the best student as a sophomore?
I checked my phone once I arrived to the common area located at the bottom of the stairs that served as the cafeteria in the afternoon. No new messages. I pushed the doubt back into the crevices of my mind that anything negative could have transpired. It never does. He must be really busy, I assumed, I’ll hear back soon. As I settled on the unhealthy choice of carb filled sugary Pop-Tarts that were in the vending machine, I returned back to the place where I had carelessly tossed my backpack to start my seemingly pointless math studies.
Before I knew it, practice was over and I was waiting out front with my friend Julia for my mom to give us a ride to our group tumbling class. We decided that the nearby Sonic drive-thru would suffice in order to give us some energy to make it through another hour or so of gymnastics. Again, not the healthiest selection but I was set on eating their greasy fried slabs of cheese. Being typical teenage girls, we were probably discussing the latest gossip. I can’t recall now. The details regarding the topic of conversation are irrelevant on that day of all days.
While waiting for my mother to arrive as we talked about the unimportant things that us teenage girls tended to do, I received a phone call from a friend of mine that I attended church with. It was odd to have heard from him but I pushed it aside since my mom would be arriving at the school in any minute. I was 15 years old the day that my world shattered. I got a text message from my friend that had called me only a brief a moment before.
I froze. Julia looked at me asking what could have possibly motivated me to turn into a form of a statue. This had to be a sick, cruel joke. Without answering her questions I immediately returned his original call. He told me to turn on the news. It seems that everyone had seen the news that evening while I was at practice. He didn’t want to be the one to have to explain the details of the tragedy. I screamed at him in an attempt to force him to tell me, to say that it wasn’t real. At last, the answer I was looking for but didn’t want to hear.
I couldn’t speak. It was as if a truck collided at full speed against my chest preventing air from flowing into my lungs but somehow my body remained intact. I nodded when he asked if I was ok, as if there was a way for him to understand the movement patterns of my head through the telephone. I was able to force out a whisper to indicate that I was somehow still breathing in the midst of the dark suffocating cloud that began to enclose around me.
Air refused to enter into my chest no matter how hard I tried to gasp for it. I silently shouted unable to produce sound as I sank onto the cold slab of concrete underneath my feet turning into a puddle of tears. I received another phone call from a friend that also belonged to our youth group. He asked if I was ok assuming I recently heard. News certainly does travel fast, regardless if it is good or not. I treated him unkindly in the wake of my emotional rampage and hung up not wanting to acknowledge that this was real life.
Julia did the best she could to comfort me, not that anyone could. No one understood that my best friend was no longer living on this Earth with me. Shortly after receiving the news, my mom’s car approached the school where we sat out front on the pavement. She emerged from her SUV with tears in her eyes looking at her daughter experiencing her first heartbreak. She had already known. I ran into her arms begging God for some sense of feeling to return. My world would never be the same.
Even ten years later, this time of year is bittersweet. It has been almost ten years to the day that my world had changed. I love fall, I always have. Seeing orange coat the shelves of stores housing every type of food imaginable now available in pumpkin flavor. Lighting candles with warm scents that are only appropriate to smell when the temperatures begin to decrease outside. I long to wear the collection of boots I possess but deem them only acceptable when leaves begin to change. It is also the time that this memory eases its way back into the forefront of my consciousness.
On October of 2006, one of the sincerest, kind-hearted, funniest human beings I’d ever have had the privilege of knowing was taken from this Earth. He was my best friend. I loved him. Not the love that you think you experience when you are infatuated at 15 with raging lustful hormones taking over your brain. It’s the kind of love that I can’t necessarily put into words. We confided in each other to hold one another’s’ deepest, darkest secrets that no one else knew. I got in trouble (on more than one occasion) for going over my text message limit and spent hours laughing at the many outrageously hysterical things that would flow from his mouth. Every youth trip that was taken was spent along side Matt innocently sharing seats next to one another because we never stopped talking, ever. He was the biggest blessing in not only my life, but also everyone he met.
I missed the next few couple days of school that led to fall break and proceeded to go to go back home to Arizona to visit family as planned since I was living in Colorado during that time. The funeral was arranged to occur a week later and I made arrangements to fly back home earlier than planned to attend. I wish I could have been stronger in retrospect, but I was falling apart at the seams. I remember every excruciating part of that day. Without going into too much detail, it was the hardest thing for me to experience at such a tender age. The thing that I seemed to have memorized was the sea of people that were there to honor his memory. I knew he was an amazing person. It was fact. Having the countless faces of not only familiar people, but the many that I did not recognize only confirmed that he made an incredible impact with his short time here. He did then and he continues to do so now.
One mistake that I have made when it comes to remembering the type of person that Matt was is that I let the memory of finding out what happened replace the memory of him. For too long I let an unanswered text turn into anxiety, and pushed away those I cared about as a coping mechanism. I used to think of how horrible it made me feel, then would become saddened by the fact that he can’t do what I’ve been able to do. We, as humans tend to take breathing for granted. The reality is that he has done more than I have ever been able to. My mom used to tell me how funny he was, how genuine he was, how friendly he was to everyone and how many people he impacted positively by being who he was. She explained that God needs people like that with him too sometimes. He needs to use them as an example to those around him, remind people to be a better person like he was.
I’ve neglected reflecting on how Matt’s death affected me. I never talked about it with anyone. I haven’t cried about it since around the time that it happened. I had no more tears left to give. No more time to spend being sad. Not that he would want me to spend time being sad. Not when I could be celebrating the person that he was. October 17th would pass over the years and I chose to push his memory to the wayside. I feel like a horrible person for doing so but again, it’s not about me.
I sat down and got out my computer this evening not knowing what I would begin to write. I wasn’t prepared to venture into the depths of my mind to dig out the memory of my late friend, but I’m glad my session today took an unexpected turn. He was an extraordinary individual and it was an honor knowing him for the time that I did. Fall shouldn’t be bittersweet. It also shouldn’t be a time of sadness like I had believed. It is a time to be alive, indulge in clichéd pumpkin spice lattes, breathe in the crisp cool air, take in the beauty of the changing leaves and unapologetically be you, the way that he would. I realize now that it takes time to grieve a loss. Time to heal and time for you to begin to feel joyous about the life that a loved one has led, even if they are no longer there to lead it.