When you're young, you think your invincible.
Sometimes you drive too fast, or drink too much or make the wrong choice because you can.
You never think it's going to catch up with you, and most of the time it doesn't.
I've been there. I'm still there.
I'm still wrapping my head around how in a world full of people who make the wrong choices every single day, we continue to lose the people who always made the right ones.
In the years following college, I have learned so much. About life, about love, about me.
I learned that most of the cliche's your adults told you growing up, are true. Like nothing is certain and that most of the time you have to pave your own path instead of following someone else's. I've learned that nothing comes easily. That sometimes you lose the people you love, no matter how much better a person they were than you. I've learned to forgive more and to accept. I've learned that the hard choices are usually the right ones and I've learned when to draw a line in the sand and when to step over the line I drew for myself. I've learned that there is always a silver lining and that the toughest situations often lead to the most spectacular results.
But everyday I continue to wonder, how a person can be in this world one minute and gone from it the next.
A few months after college graduation, a classmate of mine was killed in a hit and run in College Park. She was truly one of those people who touched your life the moment you met her. She sparkled and bubbled all over the place, she was infectious and you couldn't help but be drawn to her. That was just how she was. She wanted to be better, she was always working to be a better version of herself and she inspired you to want to do the same.
I went to her viewing and when it was my turn to stand in front of her coffin, I remember being struck by how utterly still she was. Like a porcelain doll but with all the wear and tear of life still clinging to her. Her nails were long and purple but chipped at the ends from grasping life. The silver elephant bracelet lying neatly around the wrist of one of her perfectly folded hands was tarnished and worn, bearing the brunt of a once cherished possession. I felt like at any minute, she might sit up, rub the sleep from her eyes and give us one of her signature smiles as if to say "All you silly people, I'm fine, don't you see? I'm still here, I never had any intention of leaving!"
I walked out of there with a strange, strange feeling. Like I'd been let in on a secret that I didn't fully understand.
Then, in 2015, I lost my high school sweetheart after almost a decade long battle with schizophrenia. Up until that moment, I had never experienced that kind of loss. I remember the exact moment I found out, I was at work, in the middle of a large convention center in downtown Philadelphia. I clasped my hands to my mouth and gasped, before dropping to my knees and sobbing. The sounds that came out of my body were ones I'd never even heard before and I was only vaguely aware that it was me who was making them. I couldn't form words, I could hardly breathe. I felt like the sky was falling, and crashing down all around me. The air was sucked out of me, the ground fell away beneath me and nothing seemed concrete anymore.
I drove straight home from Philly and called out of work for two days so my mom and I could drive to Illinois for his funeral. At his funeral we shared our favorite memories, we listened to his favorite songs and I thought about all the posters he'd plastered to the wall of the basement that embodied my teenagedom, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sublime, Jimi Hendrix. We passed around old pictures. Zac at 1 year old, reaching his chubby arms out toward the camera. Zac at 5, in his tiny baseball uniform with a bat in hand, his glove and ball staged carefully at his side. Zac at age 12 with his cousins. Zac at 14 cradling his dog butters in his arms. Zac and I at prom. Zac playing our song on the piano at Johns Hopkins the day I came to visit, his mom and I watched from the stands with tears pouring down our cheeks. That was the first time we lost him. But we lost him so many times after that.
After I came home, I listened to a mixed tape he gave me for two weeks straight until it skipped so much it was barely audible.
I cried every time "Snow" by Red Hot Chili Peppers came on, our first concert together. I cried every time "Yellow" by Coldplay came on, our first song. I would sit in my car, my heart heavy with the weight of emptiness. Aching. I would listen to the last voicemail he left me. One of many that went un-answered. I would blame myself for all the calls I didn't answer, all the plans I never made, all the times I wasn't there when I should have been. All of the judgement and hard feelings I harbored. It all evaporated. None of the things we did, none of that mattered, it was all the things I didn't do.
I blamed a god I didn't believe in for things I didn't understand. I wondered how I could continue living in a world where Zac didn't.
And I learned that you never truly get over death, you just learn how to live and appreciate the relationships you still have with the family and friends you still have.
Then, on August 13th, a few short saturdays ago, I lost my aunt.
Aunt Donna was one of those people you felt privileged to have known if you did indeed know her.
She was gracious and graceful at the same time, loving, caring, artistic, creative, silly, fun, the list goes on and on.
I didn't wish her Happy Birthday because I thought I'd see her soon. I didn't hug her tight enough the last time I saw her. I never told her how much I appreciated the times she came to visit me in college and whisked me away from my dorm room if only for a few hours for a pasta dinner and a laugh. Or the day we spent together on the beach in Delaware, eating gold fish and playing card games with Caitlin. When we got together a few months ago to celebrate (I can't even remember what we were celebrating) we talked for over an hour about work and life and commitments and choices. She asked me all about my life and I was more than happy to share, I never even asked. "What's new with you?"
And when I saw her for the very last time in that hospital room, I begged her to stay for every selfish reason I could think of.
"Come on Aunt Donna, there are still so many places I want you to visit with Caitlin and I. You can do this, you can do this because we still have to go to Europe and drink sangria in Spain, we still have to climb the Eiffel tower and look out over the twinkling lights and tiny streetcars, we still have to visit Italy and taste real Italian prosciutto and sip espresso in a street cafe."
"Come on Aunt Donna, you can do this because Caitlin can't do her senior year without you. Who will take her back pack and tell her to take a load off and ask her about her first day? Who will watch all her favorite shows with her? Or dig up old recipe favorites to cook with her on a chilly fall day?"
"Come on Aunt Donna, you can do this because you are the first of the Rowe five. Without you, there are only four and what will those four do?"
"Come on Aunt Donna, you can do this because if you don't, Uncle Larry will lose his best friend."
"Come on Aunt Donna, you have so many canvasses unfinished or never even begun. So many pages left to color, so many skirts to knit, so many frames to build."
I never once said...
"Aunt Donna, I know you're tired, I know how hard you've been fighting but if it's too much, if you can't do it, it's okay. We understand. You can let go if you need to let go and we will be just fine."
That's the funny thing about forethought, it makes you rethink every thing you ever said.
But I think now I'm finally starting to understand. I'm starting to make peace with things I didn't say or do.
I'm starting to let go and give in and make time.
Because after all, that's what life's about isn't it?