|Me (center) and my cousins, July 1997|
In the summer of 1997, I was in between my junior and senior years of high school, and I was invincible. Like most privileged kids at that time in the suburbs of Atlanta, I drove a beat-up Volvo station wagon, my bulletproof tank. The car represented my freedom from oppression, whatever that can mean to a girl who doesn’t even have to supply her own gas money. That my muffler was held intact with a coat hanger didn’t matter; I was part of the crowd. Like Billy Joe Armstrong was hoping when he penned the song that is now a part of every highlight reel, I was having the time of my life. Graduation was barreling forward in just a year, and I was experiencing each moment with instant nostalgia and intense feeling.
In early July of that year, I received a phone call one morning from my dad to tell me that my favorite cousin Clay had been killed in a vehicle collision. Just a month younger than me, Clay had been my touchstone for reality in a world that, to my teenage mind, felt increasingly surreal. While his appearance may have suggested a disconnection from proper society—a shroud of stringy hair, a Nirvana t-shirt and 5XL pants were his ubiquitous attire—his monologues on music and daily life in Miami suggested a deeper intellect, and his mischievous smile betrayed a softer side.Clay was as close to a twin brother as I will ever get, knowing where I had come from and understanding where I was going—or rather, where I wished I were going. Our lack of four-wheel modes of transportation became part of our oft-repeated narrative. Speech was an unnecessary afterthought at times, and we could spend hours just being.When we weren’t just being, we constructed ways to amuse each other. Just a quick glance from him could make me crack up laughing. One of our favorite schemes was a plot we hatched and brilliantly pulled off to ransack the beer cooler at a family gathering, taking one beer each. Our brimming ear-to-ear grins could be seen from outer space.I hung up the phone with my dad and immediately ran to my closet, tearing down a shelf of photo albums. My heart pounded in my chest as I frantically flipped pages, afraid if I didn’t instantly catch a glimpse of Clay, I would forget what his face looked like. I felt his presence, that part of me only he grasped, vanishing. For the first time, I knew the fear of death. Later that day, at my job as a camp counselor, I shivered uncontrollably even in the sweltering Georgia summer heat, unable to shake the knowledge of my own mortality.An older cousin, John, had joined the Marines a few months earlier. When Clay died, I obsessed over where the Marines would place John, assuming he would be the next to die. Somehow, I simultaneously worried about and envied him; his newly shorn hair and starched dress blues gave him power to cut so clearly away his former adolescent, civilian self. Watching John at the wake, unable to cry due to his new military rank, I swallowed his numbness whole and let it carry me forward. The guardian of childhood I had so long taken for granted had slipped away, taking with it the golden age of adolescent egocentrism and leaving heartache and fear behind.After the funeral, I wandered around stunned for a few months. I witnessed my fellow debutantes attend their cotillion balls, reserving both my judgment and jealousy of their cheerful attitudes for fleeting moments of solitude. I kept close tabs on my friends’ drinking habits, attending parties in cornfields only so I could purse my lips at their immaturity and drive them home. When a good friend got a DUI, I took it as a personal attack on me, wondering how he could be so carefree when we were going to die some day. Didn’t he realize?I realized. Suddenly, I knew for certain I was going to die, and as though I were trapped in a Woody Allen film, I kept waiting for signs it was going to happen. I lost control of myself, and I impulsively streaked through the ensuing months, an erratic bolt of anguish and frustration.Gradually, I sought refuge in my rowing team friends to diminish the fear and helplessness. There’s nothing like camaraderie and hard exercise for pain killing. They assisted me in rebuilding the sense that we were the exception to the rule. They, the immortal gods of crew, slowed my plummeting spiral long enough for me to feel weightless again. Over time, I forgot that I was hurling toward the chaotic unknown of separation and adulthood. I paused in the space between what was and what could be, between the stimulus and the response.In that space, I discovered and nurtured power to choose my attitude. I could see life as leading toward an eventual, inescapable demise, or I could approach it as I do now, grateful for every day I’m given. When Clay passed on, I focused at first on the part of me that went with him—that slice of my personality only he knew. But I began to see that part of him stayed with me, and his death made me better and stronger. Those pieces of each other are at once both steadfastly etched in the firmament and planted on solid ground.
Clay would have turned 34 years old this week. I used to lord it over him that I was a month and a day older, but from the moment of his death I have grown ever older still, while he remains forever the boy known only in my heart. At some point in the next year, I will be exactly twice as old as he was when he died. Yesterday I had the first physical I’ve had in ages and noted how much the doctor-patient health discussions have changed over time to include the phrase, “At your age…” But I don’t mind aging. The crow’s feet and gray hairs, the freckles and kidney stones are all evidence of these years I’ve spent living for the two of us. And like that teenage version of me once did, I am pausing in another space in my life, between what was and what could be. I am so very grateful for this pause, these moments, this life.