Everyone has that time in their childhood where they realize they aren’t as invincible as they thought they were, that time when that specter of death starts encroaching on their thoughts. I know when mine was.
Twenty-nine years ago on November 4th, 1994. I lost a friend. I know this because every year on Facebook, people from my class share his jersey number. 42. The two things go together in my head now, 42 and November 4th.
Technically, it was November 5th, since we didn’t find out until then. Back then we didn’t have the internet so we had to wait until word spread around by mouth via the phone. I was getting ready for a football game as I was in the marching band (certified band geek here). I can’t remember the time we got the call but it was still early. I had just eaten breakfast and didn’t even change into my uniform when word came that the game was canceled because someone had died.
It wasn’t until about a half hour later until one of my friends called me in tears, breaking the news that the person who had died was Adam. The tears didn’t come for me then, as I was young and didn’t think that was a manly thing to do. But the shock was there. I couldn’t believe it. I had just seen him at school the day before. Sure, other people had died in school before, but I didn’t know them.
But I knew Adam. I knew him well.
We were stand-mates in band, as we both played clarinet. I can’t remember if I wished him luck at the game the next day since he was one of the star players, but I probably said I would see him there. Adam was a nice guy. Smart. Fun to talk to and be around. Didn’t mind that I was a D&D playing nerd like a lot of other people in our grade did.
How did it happen? He was in the car with friends, on the way to someone’s house. As juniors in high school, we were all the right age to start getting our licenses and with it, the reckless feeling that we owned the road. The driver was going too fast on a road where you shouldn’t do such a thing, but they were too young to know that, too inexperienced. There was an accident. Everyone else got out of it with minor injuries. But not Adam. He wouldn’t survive his.
He wouldn’t get to do a lot of things. He wouldn’t get to play in the Christmas concert. He wouldn’t get to go to junior prom–or senior prom, for that matter. He wouldn’t go to the band trip to Florida the next year. He wouldn’t get to graduate high school. He wouldn’t get to go to college and play football there. He wouldn’t get to grow up. He wouldn’t get to grow old.
A few days later was my birthday. It should have been a memorable occasion, showing up to school with my shiny new driver’s license I had gotten that morning. Instead, everything was muted. The first person I saw that day I walked into the building cried on my shoulder. That pretty much set the mood for the day, everyone consoling each other on our loss. And it was our loss. Adam was one of the most popular kids in school. Being on the football team helped with that but just being a good guy handled the rest. All of us were going to the wake that night. There were so many people at it you would have thought a dignitary had died, not a teenager. My dad ended up dropping us off and told us where he would be parked down the road since the lot to the funeral home was so packed. We waited in the line to get in to see Adam for a long time. It seemed like hours. My brother and I talked to the friends we found in line and joked and chatted. Normal kid stuff. It wasn’t until we saw him lying in the casket that everything sunk in.
Adam was dead.
I didn’t cry then, either. Everyone else there was a complete wreck. I felt sad, I could feel the tears wanting to come out, but they never did. I told my friend Johanna about it, asking if I was messed up or broken inside. She said no as she was the same way. Johanna could see horrible things and not get fazed but then lose it over something trivial like a flower being out of place. That was a bit of a comfort and made me feel less worse than I did about grieving the loss of my friend.
We stumbled out of the wake and back to the car. My brother and I didn’t really talk about it that I recall. At the funeral the next day, there was as big a turnout as the wake. My father drove me since I was still a newbie driver and in mourning. For some reason I listened to “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” by R.E.M. about five times in a row getting ready for the funeral. It seemed, right, somehow. I don’t really know why. The church was packed and the service lasted a long time as people got up to say a few words about Adam. It was all a blur, really. Then we were in our cars, a long, snaking procession that must have stretched for miles to the cemetery. I watched them put him in the ground and then we left.
That was the moment for me, that was when everything had a little less luster than it used to, and how every activity now had a shadow hovering over it. I think about it every year on this day, when the 42s start getting posted on Facebook. I don’t do it, though. It seems silly to me, to commemorate the day we found out he died. I don’t think he would want us to do that, but that is the date stuck in our heads. The day we grieved him, the day we still grieve him. The day we will always grieve him until we forget or are grieved ourselves.
I won’t post it, but damned if it won’t smash “Like” on every single one of them to show that I don’t forget our friend either.