I’m a little late for your 19th birthday. We were busy moving across the country. I promised myself that every year, on your birthday, I would write you a letter. But then I realized that I don’t need to mark your birthday as a reason to do that. So, here we are.
This weekend sucked. I’m not sure why. I think it’s the time of year—band season. Facebook memories can be brutal, and it doesn’t help that they were invented right around the time you died. Thanks, Facebook. On the one hand, I like the reminders, but it’s disturbing when I see something pop up that isn’t always at the forefront of my mind anymore. On the other hand, seeing your face—it takes me back to the good and the bad. Through the pixels, I remember every curve of your nose, the curve of your jaw, and how I don’t have pictures that capture just how much you changed in those last months. I remember what it feels like to go “under” for a hug, the feel of your V-neck t-shirt against my cheek. I remember the way you used to play with my ponytail when I sat on the couch watching TV. I remember your deep voice, your unrelenting sarcasm and your disdain for anything touchy-feely.
Unfortunately, when I think about you, I cannot stop the freight train of thinking about that week. The hospital. The surgeries. How cold your room was. If Auntie Kim and Hailee hadn’t brought me those pillows and the blanket, I think dad and I would have frozen at night. And God bless uncle Brian and Ruchna for bringing your dad and I some warm clothes. What a shit show.
I remember the way your hand felt when I held it. I remember how frustrating the cords and IV lines were, and how gentle we were instructed to be with your movements. I remember your friend’s face when he saw you. I remember opening your phone in the morning to have to tell your people what had happened. Thank God you hadn’t set a password yet. Thank you for that gift.
My point is that the bad makes it hard to think about the good. When the good memories come, they are quickly followed by your injuries, the crash scene, and the minute we knew it was you in that accident.
People say all the time that the second year is harder. But I often think about how nothing could possibly be worse than that first year—your senior year. That was fucking brutal. All of it. I thought they were wrong. Because I made it through year two in a relatively okay place. We had the move to look forward to. We made some major life decisions. Gav was on the upswing. But then he got hurt and life felt like a big “eff you” to us. Oh, you’re feeling better? Good! You must be ready for more. He’s doing better now, finally—I mean, FINALLY—wrapping up PT last week, and I think were it not for the idea of being cleared for lacrosse, I might seriously be talking to your dad about having him finish high school in California with his friends. But that’s a whole other story.
When I went to an entrepreneurial conference last year, in a group sharing our company vision, I ran into a woman who, after I had shared about our non-profit and how we wanted to honor you, shared that her son was murdered and that her focus would not be on that. Clearly, I struck a nerve. After the session ended, I approached her, the kindred spirit, the one who knew the pain. She was so gracious and kind, sharing with me that she spent the first ten years after her son died throwing herself into the San Diego chapter of Mothers of Murdered Children. “The fourth year was my leveling year,” she had told me. At the time, a year and a half in, I thought how could anything be worse than year one? And then I remembered that whole “individual journey” thing.
Let me tell you. Year three is not feeling all that great. It’s horrible how your memory just erases things but leaves others. Being back here in Stafford brings back many memories—for all of us. Gavin told me the other day about the time the two of you raced around the library on your bikes, leading up to a game of chicken on the sidewalk that ended with both of you tangled, splattered, and bruised. “You don’t remember that?” he asked. “You were so mad at us when we came home crying.” I didn’t have any memory of it. But it did remind me of the time you just forgot to bring your bike home from school, for an entire weekend. I do remember how mad I was then. It seems silly now to have put that much energy into being angry. Now, the only thing to get me that riled up is thinking about how someone’s actions have offended my core sense of self. That and maybe Gav’s school counselor. She makes me that angry. Do your job. Whatever. Anyway.
Year three feels like you’re fading. I feel pretty empty without the guilt and the acute grief to occupy my time. I’ve moved past that stage. Now I’m stuck back in my “real life” of the military and it feels like I’ve outgrown it, like digging myself out of the pit after losing you was so all-consuming and took so long that now that it’s done, the trivial stuff that used to bother me just doesn’t anymore. But here I am, in a world where to a lot of people, that stuff is a top priority. I thought it would be easier to ease back into this life, but it turns out that I don’t really want to, man. It’s nothing personal. I still love life in the military. I’m just not really interested in the parts of it that are “so hard.” Please. Hard is relative.
The fact that remembering you is harder now and that honoring my commitments to you, like finishing my graduate degree and starting a non-profit, take real effort, I don’t have a lot of time for “surface.” I want to write. I want to finish this degree. I want Gavin to be happy—sometimes trying to make that happen is a full-time job. I want dad and I to move on to the next right thing. I want real and meaningful relationships. I want to do pottery. It just seems like a struggle to get there because of all the peripheral noise that gets in the way.
I miss having you to talk to. Why do I struggle so much to find your innate ability to give zero effs, ever? Why do I care so much about stuff that is so not important? I am feeling a little lost, buddy. I really wish you were here to tell me to stop sweating the small stuff. I wish you were here so that I could tell you to comb your flippin’ hair. I still wish I would have driven you that day. I’m sorry, buddy, that this has happened to us. I’m sorry we aren’t together. But I’m going to keep trying, keep drowning out the noise. I know I’ll see you again. I know you’re waiting. I know.
I just wish I didn’t have to wait so long.