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“Is that your boyfriend?”
That’s the question posed by most people when they see the picture of Brian sitting on my dresser. I guess it’s a logical observation, considering most 16-year-old girls have a boyfriend. I usually laugh and reply that, no; he was just a good friend. I used to cry whenever someone asked, but it’s been almost a year now, and I’m able to laugh a little at the question.
The picture was taken the summer before he died, while we were at a Six Flags park together. He is grinning ear to ear, and is wearing one of those crazy jester hats they sell at amusement parks. I have that picture on my dresser because it captures the very essence of what Brian was like.
Brian and I go back a long time, and our moms go back even further. I guess it was inevitable that we would become friends, but no one could have predicted how much of an impact he would have on my life and the lives of so many others.
As can be expected with our moms being best friends, much of our toddler and kindergarten days were spent together. Although we grew up together, our relationship was not without its problems. There were times we denied even knowing each other. But as we got older, and more mature, we started to grow back together. By the time we were in junior high, we were pretty much best friends despite our differences.
When Brian was nine, his dad left their family and it really hurt him. At that age, it was impossible for Brian to understand that his dad still loved him, even if he didn’t love his mom. He hated his dad for that. After his dad left Brian was never quite the same.
He grew more and more unhappy as he got older. By the time Brian was 14, he had become what some people would describe as a Goth—multiple piercings, completely dressed in black, and spiky black hair with cherry red tips. In junior high he entered into the outcast clique and I remained his only “normal” friend.
As a friend, I was concerned about these changes. I knew it wasn’t healthy for him to hurt himself, or have suicidal thoughts, but I didn’t know how to help him. I felt so weak and powerless as I watched my friend turn into someone that at times I felt I didn’t know.
Brian trusted me with his problems and knew his secrets were safe with me. He told me a lot about his life and his feelings. It was hard for me to relate to a lot of the things he was going through, especially his anger at his dad, but I knew how to shut up and listen. He told me about stuff he did with his friends, like smoking pot and drinking. Brian knew what he was doing wasn’t right, but he liked the way he felt when he was high. Again, I just shut up and listened.
Then one day everything changed. I’ll never forget the Sunday afternoon Brian called and told me he had become a Christian. He sounded so happy and excited that I just assumed he was high, but on Monday at school he was wearing jeans and a blue polo shirt. And that wasn’t even the strangest thing about him. He was actually carrying a Bible! I was shocked at this sudden transformation. Apparently everybody else was, too, because I noticed he was getting a lot of stares.
I have to admit that at first I was a little irritated at his sudden change. I had just gotten used to him being a depressed punk and now he had changed on me again. I figured he would get over it and go back to “normal” in a few days, but it never happened. He never went back. Not to smoking, not to drinking, not to any of the other things he used to do.
In the following year he became such a different person. He was happy and always ready to encourage. He started trying in school and went out of his way to make new kids feel welcome. He even called his dad and told him he loved him.
He tried to tell his other friends about Jesus, too, but they just laughed at him. After a few days they didn’t want anything to do with him. I know it was hard for him to lose all of his friends, but he said God was helping him deal with the pain.
I was blown away with the changes in him. It made me start wondering about this Jesus he talked so much about. I came to the conclusion that He must be pretty powerful to help Brian make such a turn-around.
Brian and I started doing a lot of stuff together. Almost every weekend we would go to the mall, movies, roller-skating, bowling, or even to dinner sometimes. If we weren’t physically together, we Instant-Messaged or talked on the phone. I could talk to him about anything, and he felt the same about me. People often accused us of being boyfriend and girlfriend, but we never thought of it that way. We were just friends and always would be.
It never occurred to me that our time together would be cut short. I didn’t give much thought to death—it was only something that happened to old people, so I felt immune. And even though Brian talked about Him all the time, I didn’t give God much thought either until He took Brian from me.
The last time I saw Brian was on a Friday night. We had both landed roles in the high school play, and had practice almost every afternoon. He usually gave me a ride home from school, since I only had my learner’s permit. Tonight, though, we had decided to go out for pizza and to a movie.
That night, Brian seemed to sense that he wouldn’t see me again. He talked about dying, which really scared me, but Brian talked about it like it wasn’t a big deal. I asked him why he seemed so happy about dying. He told me when he died he knew he’d go to heaven, so why shouldn’t he be happy? Like I said, all this talk about him dying scared me so I told him if he wasn’t careful he would jinx us, but he just laughed.
We talked about a lot that night, and it almost as if he knew it was the last time we would be together. In fact we talked so long we were ten minutes late for our movie.
The movie was really good—a comedy, just what we both liked. After the movie we got into his car and pulled out of the parking lot onto the road home. With all his earlier talk about death, I half expected us to be in an accident on the way home, but we arrived safely.
When we pulled into my driveway, I started to thank him for taking me out, but he stopped me.
“Katie,” he said, “ If I never see you again...”
I cut him off, “Brian, quit talking about dying. You’re really scaring me.”
“Sorry, Kate,” he said, “but I just want you to know I love you.”
I was taken aback. He had never told me he loved me before, and I didn’t know how to respond so I just smiled at him and got out of the car. I walked up the sidewalk to our front door, turned, waved, and went into the house. If only I had known.
I didn’t think any more about our conversation or Brian’s pre-occupation with death. The next day, Saturday, was a lot of fun. I went to the mall with my best friend, Ashley, and then to her house to watch a movie. I came home around midnight and went right to bed.
I didn’t sleep long, because at 1:20 in the morning the phone rang. My parents were still up, and they got it before I did. I got comfortable and was almost back to sleep when my mom came into my room. She was crying, and I asked her what was wrong. Before I even asked, I could tell something really bad had happened.
She sat down on my bed, held me close, and said, “Brian was driving his little sister home tonight, when his car was hit by a drunk driver. Sarah was killed instantly, but Brian is still hanging on.”
I was stunned. My mind screamed, “NO!!! This can’t be happening!” But, it was true. I threw some clothes on, and we were in the car on the way to the hospital in five minutes.
We spent the rest of the night at the hospital with Brian, but when it was obvious he wasn’t going to make it the doctors made us leave his room. It was probably good that I wasn’t there when he died. That was the worst night of my life.
Around 4:45 am, his mom came out of his room and quietly we all walked to our cars. I was trying really hard not to cry, because teenagers are supposed to be brave, but it was so hard. I held on until we got home, then I locked myself in my room and totally lost it.
I guess I must have cried myself to sleep, because the next thing I remember Mom was knocking on my door. I glanced at the clock and saw that it was after six. “Six when?” I wondered. Mom knocked again.
“Kate, are you awake?”
I didn’t want to answer, but I did. “Yeah, what do you want?”
“Are you ok, sweetie?”
“Yeah, sure,” I snapped at her.
“Oh, well, is there anything I can do for you?”
“Just leave me alone,” I mumbled.
I felt bad for talking like that to her, but Mom acted as if nothing had ever happened. I started crying again and eventually went back to sleep.
I ended up sleeping until noon on Monday. By then I was hungry enough to come out of my room. I found Mom in the kitchen making grilled cheese.
“Hey mom, who is that for?” I startled her with my question.
“You,” she said, placing the sandwich on a plate and setting it on the table.
“Do you mind if I eat in my room?”
“The rules haven’t changed, Kate.”
I quickly ate my sandwich and retreated back up to my room. I continued drifting in and out of reality for the next couple of days. I spent most of my time grieving or sleeping in my room, leaving only when I had to eat.
It was Wednesday and I had just finished eating. I was going back up to my room when Mom stopped me on the stairs.
“What do you want?” I said.
“Well, Brian’s viewing and funeral are tomorrow morning and…”
I didn’t wait to hear what she was saying. I still couldn’t bring myself to believe he was dead. A funeral would make it all real and I couldn’t accept that. I rushed up to my room and slammed the door behind me. Once inside the safety of my room, I threw myself on my bed and started crying—again.
“Brian can’t be dead, he was only 17,” I reasoned with myself. “He was perfectly fine just the other night.” Every time I closed my eyes all I could see was him smiling at me.
That day was horrible. Mostly I cried, drifting between sleep and reality. I couldn’t accept that he was dead, that I wouldn’t see him again. I have to give my mom credit, and my dad, too. They tried their hardest to help me, but I wouldn’t let them. I didn’t leave my room that whole day and I didn’t talk to anyone. I just laid on my bed, grieving.
Before I knew it, Thursday was here. The day of Brian’s viewing, the day of his funeral. And like it or not I found myself numbly getting dressed and into the car for the ride to the funeral home.
I was surprisingly calm until I walked into the viewing room and saw the casket with Brian’s body in it. I wanted to turn around and run back home. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I just stood there, trying not to cry.
After awhile it began to strike me how many people were there. I began to see many of my friends, people from school, the cast from the play, co-workers from his job at Subway, and lots of people I didn’t even know.
My best friend, Ashley, came over to me and put her arm around my shoulders. I saw her face was streaked with tears, as was mine, but she looked calm. I wondered how she could be so composed at a time like this. After all, our friend had just died. But then I remembered. She was a Christian, too. She must have the same peace about death that Brian had. She studied my face for a minute and gave me a big hug.
“I can see you’re not doing too well,” she said.
I just nodded and burst into tears. Again. She held me until I stopped crying, then gently guided me to join the line of people waiting to see his body.
“I don’t think I can do it,” I said.
“Be brave,” she said, “and say goodbye to him.”
We went up to the casket and I made myself look at Brian. He looked so happy, so content. I wanted to remember him this way forever. I stood with my eyes glued to him for a long time. This was my last chance to see him and I took full advantage of it, memorizing every line in his face, every detail of his smile. Finally I had had enough and I turned away.
As I walked away from the casket, I noticed how many flower arrangements there were and realized what an impact Brian had had on many people, not just on me. He was an amazing person, and I was not the only one affected by his death.
One after another, people of all ages got up to make speeches about what Brian had meant to them. Ashley sat by me, and kept handing me tissues as I cried my way through the funeral. Finally it was over. Before I knew it I was in the car heading home again. I didn’t want to leave, though, because I felt like I was leaving Brian far behind.
The day after the funeral was sad and hard. The show must go on, they say, and I performed my part in the play. Before the performance started, one of Brian’s best friends dedicated the play to him and I heard practically every mom in the audience get out her tissues. I didn’t know how I was going to make it through, but I knew Brian would have wanted me to try. After it was all over, the entire cast cried backstage.
It’s been almost a year since Brian left us. For a long time it hurt to even think about him. My family has been so understanding on the days when I just wanted to be alone. Sometimes I think back to that night and wonder if I would do anything differently if I had known he would die the next day. The only thing I would change is that I would have told him I loved him too when I got out of the car. That’s my only regret.
Brian left a space in my life that can never be filled because he was such a special, unique person. I still think about him a lot, but I know he would want me to learn and move on.
And I have learned a lot from his death. I live now like there is no tomorrow (which I know now there may not be). I try new things. I am not afraid to be who I am. I try to live life to its fullest. And most of all, I love. I want to be the kind of person Brian was—funny, lovable, encouraging, and just all around special.
Whenever I get down about his death, I picture his face, all happy and smiling. I know he is a lot happier in heaven than he ever was here. And I remember that Brian is not really gone. About a week after his death, I became a Christian. I couldn’t bear the thought of never seeing him again, so I asked his mom how I could go to heaven, too. I accepted Christ as my Savior, and now I know I will see Brian some day in heaven. Until then, I have my memories.