I am constantly listening to music.
I have an obscene amount of playlists created on my iTunes account. Some were created with specific events in mind, others are simply labeled “Mood A” and so on. I ran out of letters at one point, so I’m starting to borrow letters from other languages, such as “ñ” and “ç”. But, that’s not entirely relevant. The point is: Music defines me.
One of the friends that I lived with during my time in Madison felt similarly. We both had a working knowledge of thousands of songs and (much to the annoyance of our other roommates) occasionally spoke to each other exclusively in song lyrics. Pulling various lines from various decades, we would sing-talk at each other for hours.
Sometimes, bands and artists really nail it; on occasion, we will find a song that perfectly sums up that indefinable thought that has been racing through our heads.
Dealing With It
With the help of some songs that I have been listening to recently, I am going to discuss the events of 3/8/13-3/14/13.
About a week ago, as I was decimating a heavily sauced turkey burger and enjoying a drag show at a local restaurant where a few of my friends work, I received a phone call that shot back and grabbed a long-forgotten fear of mine from a dark corner in my brain, dragging it to the forefront of my mind and leaving it there to re-root itself in my head.
My mind went numb as I listened to the frantic voice of my younger sister on the line. I sat in shock as I registered phrases like “He shot himself in the stomach,” “No note,” “No one knows why,” and “They pulled the plug” coming from the other line.
When I was in high school, one of my greatest fears was that a friend would commit suicide. High school was a tough time for many of the people I knew, and the media was constantly barraging the public with the latest high school suicide rates. I learned about self-mutilation during my freshman year and was horrified to discover that this was not an uncommon practice for people in my age bracket.
But it didn’t happen. We all made it through without having to attend any of each other’s funerals. As college began and one year gave way to another, I watched everyone grow up. No longer was anyone suffering under the toils of puberty and the Mean Girls-esque high school social scene. Sure, we still struggled from time to time, but it was a different kind of struggle. A struggle that was manageable, now that we were all adults. We all knew how to talk out our problems now, and we knew when to seek professional help (there wasn’t a stigma attached to therapy anymore). Now that we were older, we stopped blaming ourselves for things that were out of our control. We had people we could trust. As adults, we learned to deal with the things that life threw at us.
Or, at least, that’s what I thought. How terribly, terribly naive of me.
It was an old friend of mine from my hometown, one that I had been rather close to during my high school years. As cliche as it sounds, he was one of the last people I would have ever expected to take his own life. He greeted everyone with the biggest of bear hugs—even if it was the first time he had ever met someone. People would light up when he walked into the room because his joy and fun-loving attitude were that contagious. Spending time with him ensured gratuitous amounts of laughter and singing, usually in combination with the kind of crazy adventures that result from a small hometown, a big truck, and a handful of hyper teenagers. This friend also knew how to listen. People came to him with their woes. Life’s tribulations were seemingly no match for him, as every misery-stricken friend who came to him left with a renewed sense of spirit and a gleaming smile that threatened to dissolve into giggles at any second. The kind of smile that mirrored the one that was always on his face.
Now, I am not one to over-glorify the dead. He had flaws, of course. After all, he was an unapologetic country fan. He had a tendency to cancel plans at the last minute. He broke a heart or two. Typical teen stuff. But, this was all overshadowed by the overwhelming amount of positive in that kid. Always polite, always loving, always singing, always involved with his church and community.
As friends share old photos and memories on his Facebook wall, the same underlying message rings clearly behind everyone’s sentiments: WHY?
As was said during the eulogy at his funeral, he had a way of making people feel special. He would loudly greet people with a “[insert first and last name of person being addressed here]! HOW THE HECK ARE YA’ DOIN’?!” before they even knew he had arrived. One time he had stopped by my house unexpectedly. When I heard his typical greeting echo down the hallway, I bounced up, took three powerful strides, and leapt into his arms. Not realizing how powerful the velocity behind my excitement was, I had nearly bowled him over. The apology I had tried to offer was lost in his laughter. He had been used to those kinds of shenanigans from people. Everyone who was fortunate enough to encounter him loved him.
The entire city was in pain. We all lost a family member that night.
Alas, the world had not actually stopped turning. Days passed, and before our weary souls knew it, it was Monday. Time to drag our heavy hearts to work. Chipper coworkers would stop by before I even took my coat off and—as routine would have it—ask how my weekend went. The amount of effort it took to take a deep breath, smile, and say that it was “okay” was unreal. How was I supposed to answer that question?
My attempt to talk to as few people as possible that Monday completely backfired. I seemed to leave my desk at the exact time that everyone else got up to do something. It felt like I was forced into polite hallway conversation that day more than any other day in my 22 years on this earth. The weight of my grief was starting to be rivaled by that of my irritability. More than ever, I just wanted to be left alone to focus on work. Naturally, it had to be the day that everyone was torturing me with all kinds of questions about my weekend. Somewhere in the back of my head, a voice of reason was gently reminding me that they were not actually trying to be malicious and that I would have reveled in this attention any other week. The voice was right, of course, but it was just as equally irrelevant.
The mental friction caused by trying to continuously shove these thoughts out of my head while reminders kept flowing in was wearing on me. It was exhausting. In spite of everything, I still managed to be productive. However, my fierce level of focus was not without consequence. A raging headache plagued me for the remainder of the evening—the result of a 9 hour mind battle during which I fought hard to keep him out of my thoughts.
During the days leading up to the funeral, I desperately tried to distract myself. The problem was, he was everywhere. My boyfriend and I went shopping, hoping that good ol’ retail therapy would cheer me up. On the way to a store in the mall, we passed the food court. Almost immediately, the smell of cheap Mexican food worked its way into my olfactory system.
Once the smell hit, I was taken back to a time with my late friend. We had been riding in his big, shoddy, ridiculously hick-looking truck. I had no idea where we were going, because planning a destination to our “road trips” across town conflicted with his style. I had shaken my head and giggled as he rolled down the windows and sang—no, screamed—along to some terrible country song. Suddenly, he had turned off the radio and veered into the parking lot of our local Taco Bell. He told me that night that he he hoped I was hungry, because he was buying.
Lost in this memory, I floated through the shopping trip. I hardly remember doing any shopping.
Blackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly. All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise […] Blackbird, fly into the light of the dark black night
Thursday morning eventually arrived. The day where we would lay my friend to rest had come. Work was a blur. The bus rides there and back were a blur. I only vaguely recall curling the ends of my hair and changing.
Before I knew it, I was at my parents’ house with my little sister.
Standing in line at the wake, we smiled. There were somewhere between 12 and 20 poster boards that were covered in pictures of him at varying ages. We laughed as we recalled a few more of his stories. Ah, and there hung a string of his countless hats. I had nearly forgotten how much he had loved hats.
Turning around, I became acutely aware of exactly how vast his impact was on my community. Never before had I see my humble little church so full of people. Almost two hours before the service was scheduled to start, the seats were nearly full. Members of the church were scrambling to find folding chairs to elongate the rows. Chairs were even beginning to be set up in the foyer, just so everyone who wanted to stay could do so. Even still, people started lining up behind chairs and around the wall, knowing full well that there would not be enough seats for all who were mourning that day.
I couldn’t do it.
I had just rounded the last corner before approaching the casket and the family. As shoulders and feet shuffled, I caught a glimpse of him lying there. Lifeless. Contrasting so sharply with every memory I had with him. My throat tightened, and I stepped out of line. I couldn’t face him. I couldn’t deal with it. Ashamed, I kept my head down and my shoulders hunched slightly forward as I slipped into the back row.
Each of his younger siblings and both sets of his parents wrote letters to him and read them aloud to the congregation. The letters were a tragic, yet perfect mix of beauty, love, and pain. Their words reflected their current state: afraid, unsure, raw, broken, sincere, clinging tightly to anything they could. At that moment, their suffering seemed almost tangible. The air became thick with the pain of everyone in the room. An acidic taste developed in the back of my throat, and my lungs began to tighten. Heat rose to my face, centering itself behind my eyes. Muscles in my arms and legs began to inexplicably tense up. Slamming my eyelids shut, I silently willed myself to keep it together.
And then, it was over.
Moving on autopilot, I grabbed my coat and got into the car. On the way back to Milwaukee, I slid my big, black sunglasses onto my face. The cover of darkness failed to offer enough privacy. Five or so minutes into the trip, the tension that nearly suffocated me at church was released. Finally, tears poured freely. Relief surged throughout my body. Every salty tear took a worry or question with it as it slid down my cheek. Some of the excess weight on my shoulders evaporated. A wave of peace rolled through me, and I realized that I was starting to move on. It would be a long journey, but I had taken the first steps.