My sweet Noah,
Oh, baby. This is not at all how I pictured this day. 18 years. The day you were to become an adult. I thought you would be here to hug me when I cried about how you had finally grown up. I thought you’d be here to poke fun and tell me how you’d visit if I was lucky. I thought you’d still be basking in the glow of your new-found freedom after last week’s graduation ceremony. I thought we would be gathering a list of things you’d need in the dorm room at Fresno State.
Surely I would have lectured you about how sober grad meant you had to be sober and that you needed to make good decisions if you went to the non-sober party. I would fuss about your lazy days and smelly room or about how you left the refrigerator wide open for the 90th time. I’d tell you not to carry Charlie around on your shoulders like a scarf. I’d tell you to quit using every horizontal surface as a drum. But underneath all the complaining, I’d be so proud of everything you worked for. Everything you overcame. Everything we overcame.
I know I was not easy to live with and that there were times I wasn’t sure you and I would ever be okay. Thank you for proving me wrong in your final days. Those nights when you would get home from work late at night, tired and smelling like hamburgers, I reveled in our kitchen counter chats. I appreciated the occasional hug or pat on the head underneath all that sarcastic, teenage exterior bullshit. I remember the night you, Gav, and I snuggled on the couch to fill out the, ‘how well do you know your mother’ Facebook quiz. Your answers were spot on. We were a force, Noah. You were born to test my patience. You were born to teach me grace. You were born to teach us all how to love.
This time last year, we bonded over Game of Thrones every Sunday night. From you, I acquired a list of must-see TV that I’ve long since exhausted. This time last year you were on top of the world, eager for everything your senior year had to offer. You were stoked for the drum camp just a couple of weeks down the road. You had bought your first car and dad and I forced you to take pictures in front of it. You thought we were so lame. But you grinned and took it like a champ. Now those are some of the last pictures we have of you. I bought you an emergency kit for your car and gave you an old blanket I used on photo shoots to keep in your trunk. The day of the accident, uncle Sean arrived at the hospital with the blanket, your drumsticks, and one of your red Nike sneakers. I think it’s still in a box in the room that should be yours.
This time last year, I made you the most extravagant birthday cake I’d ever made. Homemade chocolate mousse filling, fresh cut strawberries and a layer of KitKat bars lining the outside. I still can’t believe you managed to eat the entire cake in less than two days. Thanks for leaving us a few slices. We were waiting for Stacy and Austin (and little miss) to get here for their visit. When I got the phone call that Tiff’s kids had died, you knew how shocked and scared I was. You put away your teenage sarcasm and were there for me. You have always been there for me when I’m sad.
I remember how excited you were when the funeral details and change of plans meant you’d be driving your own car to Fresno. You did a good job of balancing your excitement while also protecting my broken heart. Our visit with Stacy, Austin, and little miss—it was your last trip to John’s Incredible Pizza. I’m so glad you, Austin, and Gav got to spend time with each other before we left. Your last bumper car session with your brother. Your last day at work. The last picture ever taken of you—except for the one I keep hidden, where the early morning sun hit your face on that last day in the hospital.
If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change anything about this time last year. You were so happy. So loved. So ready to take on the world.
Sometimes I think I’m still in shock. Everything unfolded so fast those next few days. I think my body went into fight or flight mode. The day of the accident, while you were in surgery, I remember thinking about how your injuries were going to end your marching band season. It never once crossed my mind in those early hours that you wouldn’t be here today. Your 18th birthday. Even when I saw you lying there, I still never really thought you weren’t coming back. I’m glad you heard me when I asked you to give us a sign that you were letting go. I’m glad you were holding us up as the family trickled in to say their goodbyes.
Gavin…Noah, he misses you. It’s not as raw as it was in those early days. In my mind there are still days when I see the way he clung to you when daddy and I had to tell him we had to let you go. He’s come a long way since then. I think if you saw him on the street, you’d never know his life has been shattered for more than a year now. Those first few months, I wasn’t sure what was worse—losing you or watching him suffer through losing you. There were a few nights when I wasn’t sure he would make it back. I can see how people die of broken hearts. He was just so sad.
He’s doing better now. He sleeps with that picture—you know, the one with the two of you and the mohawks? It sits next to his bed. He plays video games on the computer you made, and he stole your Steam account. Finders keepers. He went through your old cell phones and found all the pictures we’d long forgotten. He has a set of dog tags with your name on them that a friend made for us. He has your memorial card next to your computer on his desk. He’s kept your lacrosse stick. Your drum pad with your hand print from the hospital sits on his dresser. He uses your drum as a table while he plays Xbox in the room that should be yours. He’s grown eight inches and two shoe sizes since you’ve been gone. He’s still broken hearted, but he’s doing okay.
Dad…if you ever wondered about that one thing that might shake him to his core, it’s you. In the hospital I couldn’t really conceptualize just how serious things were, until that first moment when we saw you—when daddy saw you. Then I was worried. But Noah, I have never seen a more devoted father. I hope you know that he never left your side. He stayed with you, even when I couldn’t. He held your hand until your last breath. I hope that the two of you communicated everything you needed to in those last few days. Because of you, he is a changed man.
I don’t mean that in a bad way. He looks at life differently. We all do. It’s like he was driving 90 on a freeway at all times. Losing you just…he took a completely different route. I still don’t understand how he can do his job, be under that kind of pressure, and still be okay. But on the surface he is. He still functions, but he’s dad, so of course he does a little more than ‘function.’ Thank you for continuing to lift him up, every day. He misses you, too, Noah, with every fiber of his being. Don’t ever doubt that
Your friends, your teachers, and your coworkers. Noah, do you know how many people care about you? A lot of them have friended me on Facebook. Some of them I don’t even know. But they know you. And they miss you. Every once in a while, one of them will send me a note. They’re always so well-timed, like the one I woke up to the other morning. I think they missed you last week at graduation. I think they miss you every day. I think that when you were here, you really had no idea how much you meant to anyone. Let me assure you, Noah, that the people who knew you, loved you. They were honored to know you. They learned from you. They saw the good in you, just like we always have. I know you always doubted yourself and I worried almost your entire life that you wouldn’t ever have true friends. I hope you know, Noah, that they were right under your nose. It was me who needed educating.
As for me…This is not how I pictured this year—or any year. I think the hardest things for me this past year has been dealing with the memories from that week and the lifetime of regret. If I had only been more patient, or more understanding. If I had taken you more seriously or been a better cheerleader. If we just had more time, maybe things would be different. In the beginning, and sometimes still, I was so consumed by what happened that I couldn’t function. But things are more manageable now from day to day, not because it’s easier to deal with you not being here, but because I can compartmentalize when I absolutely have to. We all do, I guess.
But it’s hard to explain the shift in every part of my life. The ground beneath me has directed me on a different path, too. You have forced me to look at my life, my actions, my relationships, and evaluate what I can do better. What do I do with all of this change? What behaviors do I need to change to ensure I can find something good out of such a horrible experience? Who do I want to be? What will it take to get there? How do those changes affect my actions every day?
What I’ve found is that talking about change and making the changes are different. Changing behavior is a much harder task. But I’m doing it—with a lot of support from daddy, from my tribe of loyal friends, from my therapist, from God, and from you. It’s hard to change bad behavior. It’s hard to let people go. It’s even harder to be a good friend and supporter of others when you’re focused on all of this self-reflection. I’ve stopped worrying about what other people think. I’ve relieved myself from the pressure of being the perfect Marine Corps wife, the perfect mom, and the perfect friend. I am trying now to just focus on the relationships that matter and putting a lot more energy into the people and things that make me happy.
Happy is a bit of a distant goal, but I’m not slogging through life unable to laugh. I’m always going to be sad, Noah. I’m always going to cry when I think of you. I’m never not going to want to turn back time. But maybe you weren’t meant to be long for this Earth. Maybe you brought into our lives to teach us, to share your gifts, and to move on. I don’t know. But I’m sure you could have found an easier way to do it. I will always be grateful for our 17 years together, and I know you will be with me forever. I will try not to dwell on what might have been and be happy with the memories we shared. But know there will never be a day that you don’t fill my heart.
Until next year.