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Invincibility Lost

by iamnirav on January 7th, 2009

Author’s note: Looking back, this is the only post from the previous incarnation of this blog worth keeping. Here it is, backdated to when it was originally written.

Compared to many, I have been blessed with relatively few encounters with death. Recently, though, it’s bubbled up into the forefront of my thoughts, and I’ve been thinking hard about those moments that I’ve experienced.

I’m sorry to be so grim so soon into the New Year, but it troubles me more to keep the thoughts to myself. As trivial as it sounds, the second half of the season premiere of Scrubs tonight focused my ideas and gave them shape.

~ ~ ~

My uncle died about ten years ago. I’ve lived as many years since then as I had lived total at the time, and my reaction to that was probably typical of someone who had just entered the fourth grade. I remember waking up to my dad’s hand on my shoulder, and blurrily seeing my sister’s oddly red face clashing with the bright green and white bedcovers. My dad explained to me that my mother’s brother had passed away overnight, in the hospital nearby.

I cried, briefly, in bed. My dad and sister stayed there with me, but of course there was nothing to say. After a bit, my dad told me that I needed to be strong for my uncle’s wife, and some combination of that responsibility and several moments passing dried my tears.

There was a viewing, and a funeral, of course, but all my ten-year-old self really remembered was a brief joke that was made in someone’s speech, and the banana bread that was brought for eating.

In the years that followed, my sister and I thought occasionally of how things would be if he was still alive, and every now and then we visited his wife. But middle school activities and high school drama softly soothed away the memories from my active thoughts, and while of course I didn’t forget, I allowed it to fade gently into the background.

~ ~ ~

Recently, that changed. The accidental death of Ryan Smith, a good friend who was in my major one year below me, changed a lot of things. It brought out words from close friends that probably would have remained buried, good words about Ryan and other words about related events. It brought us all together as a major, as a community, as something near family. But most of all, it brought to the surface our collective feeling of adolescent invincibility, and it smashed it to pieces.

I woke to a text message from a friend, telling me to check my email, and from those six or seven characters, I somehow knew exactly what had happened. Unlike my receipt of similar news ten years prior, though, I didn’t cry. Not then. I woke my roommate to the news, and told other people who needed to be notified.

It was when I was walking across campus later that day, barely staying dry under a strained umbrella, that I first cried. It wasn’t Ryan, though, that set off those particular emotions. I was glad that he wasn’t in pain anymore, and I knew mourning him was best done with others. It was the sudden, unchecked, unstoppable thought of the very real possibility that this could happen to other friends, other loved ones, even family. It was the knowledge that anyone could be taken at any time, the knowledge that, as children and teenagers, we tend to ignore to the point of foolhardiness.

~ ~ ~

I hope sincerely that no one else who knew Ryan has had a loved one go to the hospital since then. But for me, events that happened during winter break showed just how important that sensation of invincibility is. My mother caught pneumonia following a root canal, and on the day after Christmas, the doctor recommended that she be hospitalized for stronger treatment.

An alien dread took hold in my stomach. Somehow, illogically, as long as my mom was at home, she was okay. And I knew that I wouldn’t have felt this way two months ago.

I spent winter break dodging sordid thoughts and black dreams. An old fear that I hadn’t struggled with for ten years dragged itself back up into my mind: what comes after death? And the logical, inevitable answer: nothing. Nothing. I recalled a nightmare I had experienced a long time ago where I had died and, trapped in my own corpse, I lay decaying in an alleyway, slowly driving myself insane.

But my dad, sister, grandmother, and I kept going. We hosted my aunt and cousin, cooked, cleaned, watched movies and played cards in the hospital room, and finally our worst fears remained steadily unrealized. My mom responded excellently to treatment and was out of the hospital in ten days. Safe.

I am still unnerved by my reaction, though. Danger will never again be the same.

~ ~ ~

The last time I saw Ryan Smith was on a gorgeous Philadelphia autumn day. I was rushing to morning class when I sighted a familiar figure lying peacefully on his back in the grass outside our dorm building, staring up at the clouds and listening to his ever-present headphones. I hadn’t seen him the whole semester, so I detoured over to say hi.

“What’s up?”

“Not much,” he replied, glancing up from the warm grass. “Just enjoying the weather.”

I chewed on this for a second. “Enjoying the weather” didn’t begin to describe the sudden level of pull I had to lie down on the grass and doze off in the sunshine. I sighed and shook my head. “Unfortunately, I don’t have time for that.”

He looked at me and smiled shrewdly. “Yes, you do.”

From → Essays

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