My close friend died when I was fifteen years old.
I found out one afternoon after school.
As soon as the teacher in my last period class finished lecturing, I hurried to my locker to check my cell phone. This was before I had an iPhone — before, even, I knew how to use any Smartphone. This was when I toted around an ancient flip phone with a dragon decal on the back — one of those Razors that was trendy when it first came out but slowly faded into oblivion, nothing next to devices that were capable of lightning-fast texting, email, and Internet.
I flipped open my phone to see an alert: three new messages, all from friends who lived in Alabama, three whole states away from me — friends I hadn’t spoken to in quite some time.
“Call me,” a message from one friend said, so I obeyed.
The phone rang exactly four times — even today, I remember that detail — before he picked up.
“Hi.” The off-kilter quality of his voice — which sounded hoarser-throated than usual instantly betrayed that something was wrong.
And something was wrong. When I asked him if anything had happened, he spared no time in telling me: a mutual friend of ours had passed away earlier that day in a car accident. As he explained, he kept his voice muted — as if, by doing so, he could subdue any emotion behind it.
You know when someone tells you something, and you have to repeat it to yourself, in your head, a couple of times afterwards? Because you can’t really believe it to be true? And you know when it begins to sink in? And your stomach begins to twist into knots that threaten to expel bile towards the top of your throat?
I hung up.
Later, when I got home, I went upstairs — wordless to either of my parents or my little brother — and promptly crawled into my bed, without bothering to turn the lights on in my room or shut my door. I stayed there, cocooned under my comforter — past the rest of the afternoon, past dinner, past dusk — and counted the pit marks in my ceiling.
At fifteen years old, the entire world loomed outside my bedroom window, pregnant with possibilities. As bright-eyed-and-busy-tailed as anyone would be at that age, I was excited to tackle each day as it came because each day presented a buffet of opportunities to keep my life pulsating toward any direction I chose. Any direction I chose. Life seemed grand and thrilling and new each second, and there were so many milestones I had yet to reach but dearly anticipated.
But, I thought, there were so many milestones my friend would never get the chance to reach, and internalizing that — beyond being simply tragic — was terrifying for different reasons.
When we are young, we believe that the world is our “oyster” (when we are young, we can swallow clichés much easier than we can swallow grief). We believe that we are invincible, and — at fifteen or even sixteen, seventeen, until we reach some watershed moment during our twenties, when the gravity of adulthood begins to drag us back down to earth — we do feel invincible. We can do what we want. We can ignore time even as it ticks-tocks, loud and sullen, into our ears because we believe that nothing can hurt us and that we will always continue thundering forth — doing what we want, when we want.
But, we are far from invincible. We are so human that it is almost unbearable. Because we are subject to pain. Because, at some point, the gilt begins to chip off of our dreams, exposing a bleak varnish underneath and a sinking realization that we are nowhere close to reaching them. Because so much can hurt us or even stop us in our tracks before we even get the chance to decide what our dreams entail. Because our lives are precious. Because the lives of those around us are precious.
Grief is a smack across the face. It smarts for a period of time, but it also forces us to become alert to our own vulnerability. We lose the illusion that we are invincible, and we begin to love those around us a little deeper because we realize that, at any moment, we could lose that option.