Most people who know me well know that for 25 years of age I have experienced an inordinate amount of death. I doubt I'll ever know the reason why, but for as long as I can remember rarely has a few months passed without getting a phone call that another person in my world was gone. For years I believed that I was the cause of it, that somehow being connected to me meant that the black cloud of death would touch you and no one I cared about was safe. To this day if my phone rings past a certain hour my heart immediately begins to pound. If history has shown me anything it's that no one calls you that late or that early with good news.
It's been difficult for me. One might assume that the amount of exposure I've had to death would make me less effected by it, when in reality it's been the opposite. As the summer is coming to a close and the fall is fast approaching it forces me every year to face one loss that I don't know if I'll ever truly let go of. My cousin, David.
Growing up in a family as big as mine you don't just have your siblings and your parents. All of your aunts, uncles, and cousins are extensions of your nuclear family. Every aunt is another mom, every cousin another brother or sister. I wouldn't have it any other way. I feel very blessed that I have such a large family, and that we all do our best to stay connected and involved in each others lives. Even when we annoy each other, so many people don't even have the luxury of having people to annoy them.
On my fathers side I have 9 cousins. All but one was born in the state of Arizona, and for at least a portion of our lives we all lived relatively close to each other. As families moved for jobs and the like my dad and his brother (with their respective families) remained in Phoenix. Sundays we would all meet at my grandmothers for 'pasta Sunday' (this is essentially a holiday in Italian families). My uncle had two kids at the time, David and Rachel. David was the oldest of all of the cousins, and in his way was really everyones big brother. We spent a lot of time with them growing up. Our parents were very close and so even after his parents split up we spent a lot of time together at our various homes.
Growing up I always wanted to play with the boys. I wanted to play sports, throw a football, roller blade, skateboard, all of it. At the time I thought it was the coolest stuff in the world. Looking back I realize that everything that I thought was the coolest was the stuff that David liked. He always was in on whatever the latest trend was, and made it seem effortless. If he liked something, everyone else liked it to.
Once when I was around 8 years old David and Rachel had been at the house all day, and when their mom came to get them none of us wanted to say goodbye. So David snuck me into the back seat of the car and being pretty small I curled in a ball near his feet. We got halfway to their house before their mom realized what was going on and we had to turn around. I didn't even care that I got into trouble. The shared giggles were well worth the spanking.
As we all got older and entered into our angsty teenage years it was no surprise that what had once been happy play dates turned into snarky banter and arguments. David was bestowed with four girls following him around at all times annoying the absolute shit out of him. He had his own sister Rachel, his step sister Sierra, myself, and my sister Bianca. I don't know how many Saturdays he got dragged to the mall with us. He probably spent a collective month of his life watching friends episodes and rolling his eyes as we practiced our cat walks for Americas Next Top Model.
All of us girls loved making home videos. We'd write silly stories and act them out, usually Charlie's Angels themed. Since we were typically banished we'd wait until David left the house to use his room as the scene of the crime. No matter what story we were acting out, his bedroom was always a mess and served as the perfect villains lair.
David was five years older than me, and was therefore the first of us to get a job, a car, to start making those movements towards adulthood. Even when he was rebellious or getting into trouble I wanted to be just like him. I saw him as the Jem to my Scout. He taught me how to rollerblade, how to ride a skateboard, how to do a back flip into a pool, I'd even give him credit for my love of sarcasm. He was my big brother, and even when I was being completely obnoxious I know he loved me.
At the age of 17 David and his friends drove down to Coolidge, Arizona on a Friday night for an away football game. They took a stretch of highway that is rather off the beaten path and not well lit, but highly traveled. On their way back David accidentally ran a stop sign, and a truck struck him directly on the drivers side. While his two friends were able to make it safely out of the vehicle, David died on impact.
The next morning my parents came into my sisters and my respective rooms to wake us up. When it came to laying out punishments my parents liked to be on the dramatic side. So my heart sank as I wracked my brain with what I must be in trouble for. If it was both of us we must have done something bad, but for the life of me I couldn't come up with anything. They sat us on the couch, my parents directly in front of us, and we both realized very quickly that something was terribly wrong.
My dad cleared his throat and began to speak.
"Girls, we need to tell you something. David got into a car accident last night... He didn't make it."
It was in that moment that time stopped moving. The world stopped making sense. How could this be? What do you mean he didn't make it? That can't be possible...
We sat in silence for several moments before the physical grief of what I had just heard took over my entire body. The tears came so hard and so fast I don't think I could have stopped even if I wanted to. This was beyond a human response, this was primal.
It was the first time in my life that I really started to question things. It was the first time that my own mortality had been made so apparent. It was the first time I had ever questioned the goodness of God. David had been my hero, my friend, my brother, and now he was just gone.
Before the services began we as the family had an opportunity to see him. Given that he was hit directly I didn't know what to expect, I'd seen a dead person before but not someone I was so close to. I'll never forget walking into that room, seeing him on the table. He looked perfect. He could have been asleep, but still, he was gone. One by one we approached the table to say our goodbyes. My mind was a broken record... "Wake up. Just wake up, David. You're just sleeping, that's all this is. Please wake up..." I leaned down and kissed his forehead. I think that somewhere inside I actually believed that this could be like a fairytale, and maybe that would release him from this horrible sleeping curse.
As I was approaching the end of college and starting to make solid plans to move to New York my anxiety was getting more and more out of hand. Moving to New York alone had not been a part of my original plan, and I was doubting whether or not I really had what it took. My dreams were filled with chaos and stress. Adding to my belief that I wouldn't be able to handle it.
One night I was dreaming that I was in the city. I was searching for the person I had intended to move here with and couldn't find them anywhere. I was lost, alone, and very ready to give up. I was wandering the streets and crashed right into a dark haired man. I looked up and it was David, but not at 17, he was fully grown.
"Jesus Mel, what's going on with you. Are you ok?"
Before I said another word I wrapped my arms around him and held him so tight I thought he might break. I could feel his arms, I could feel his warmth. He was there, he was really really there. He chuckled at my reaction and I started to word vomit.
"David, I don't know what I'm doing here. I wasn't supposed to be here alone and I'm lost and everything is a mess. I can't do this."
"Everything is going to be fine. Of course you can do this. Since when do you hold yourself back because of other people? You've got this."
For the rest of the dream we just walked around talking. I didn't let go of him for a second. I know there are skeptics out there, but I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that that was him.
As I took the next steps towards moving I kept that memory in my heart. Knowing that even if I didn't believe in myself that David believed in me. He was the toughest guy I knew. So if he thought I could handle it then I knew I could.
13 years has passed and while the pain of losing him has grown smaller, it never totally goes away. Someone once shared with me a reddit post about dealing with grief and loss that I think perfectly encapsulates my feelings on it. (https://www.reddit.com/r/Assistance/comments/hax0t/my_friend_just_died_i_dont_know_what_to_do/c1u0rx2/) He explains how dealing with loss is like being in a shipwreck, and how the waves of grief over time are less high and less frequent.
Death is a part of life. No one is untouched by it. However I refuse to let the threat of loss prevent me from loving people with my whole heart. Every tear shed, every scar left is simply a reminder that even for a moment I had a heart full of love. What a beautiful thing to have loved someone so deeply that losing them hurts so much. What a testament to who someone is that 13 years later your heart still aches for them.
I will never not miss him. I will never not wish that things could have been different. But I am so incredibly grateful that I had him in my life, even if it was only for a little while.
(This is a screenshot of a video where I had trick birthday candles and he was helping me blow them out, as I was failing miserably on my own.)