Before Their Time

October 29, 2008
A cool autumn breeze playfully ruffled the hem of my shirt as I gazed over the Connecticut River Valley. It was one of those days in September that feels like summer is slipping away and winter is still distant. The only clouds in the sky were the wispy, see through type. They cast slow motion, splotchy shadows across the sunny mountainside. I could feel my heart as it calmly beat in my chest while I inhaled the clear Vermont air.
As I turned back towards the funeral home, my eyes settled on the dreary guests milled around on the green manicured lawn nestled in front of the stark, white building. My ears registered the muffled sounds of young men in sorrow, their sniffles breaking through their unconvincingly composed exteriors. Shock came to mind as I observed towering, muscular football players acting as though they had been blatantly punched in the stomach without warning; the death of their close, young friend acting as the fist.
The last time I had been to this funeral home, the group consisted of a few close family members and friends, the ceremony kept neatly behind closed doors. This time however, there was an endless line of people, snaking down the front steps, along the sidewalk and around the corner. As I took it all in I saw characteristics repeated in many familiar faces; young, tear stained cheeks, and the same shock spread upon their juvenile features as was seen in my own. This accident would mark the second year in a row that a senior from my high school had died; long before their time.
I had never experienced the feeling of losing someone so young and so close to the people around me. The deaths in my family have been expected. When my grandpa passed away, decades of memories were etched into his face and hands. It was unsettling as I came to the realization that life has no guarantee, no matter the age.
Inside the parlor, subtle music was playing in the background. The walls were bright white, the people between causing a darkness to settle within. An elegant staircase rose to the left and a narrow corridor which led to a small living room was ahead. I avoided the urge to look towards the right as I knew it was the room where Bella and her family stood while Jake lay, cold and still. As we inched forward, I could see tables with collages and pieces of memories scattered throughout the waiting area surrounded by candles, tissue boxes lining the walls.
As I waited with a few close friends to see Bella and her family, my eyes became wet as I lost the struggle with tears. I felt uncomfortable, crying over a person I had never met. Ironic that the first time I would meet him in person would be at his wake. Bella was one of my best friends going through one of the hardest times in her life and my body ached as I realized there was no way I could ease her pain or make this easier. I examined the collages organized in an attempt to capture Jake’s short life, finding myself imagining the good times he had had. Although I’d never met him, the pictures emanated his personality. I could see the similarities between him and Bella; their huge toothy grins, sparkling brown eyes, dark, crazy curly hair, and their simple love of life.
“It’s weird to be here, looking at these pictures,” Brit commented.
“I know w-w-what you mean,” I whispered shakily, “He looks so alive, living life to the fullest.” I lowered my eyes from the pictures.
“I can’t b-believe he’s gone” she answered, her voice cracking.

We rounded the last bend of the line; my heart sinking into my stomach at the thought of seeing the bright, smiling Bella in a state of such sadness, grasping to her memories of her older brother. I looked up and was met by the beginning of the line of family. All were somber, unsmiling. My heart broke as I moved down the line, greeting each one. They embraced me, comforted me. I felt like an imposter. I did not deserve to be comforted; I was the one who should have been wrapping people in hugs, telling them “It’s going to be okay, everything will be fine.” I dragged my feet, hoping my tears would dry before I reached Bella.

When I slowly arrived upon Bella’s dad whom I had never seen without a bright smile crinkling all the way to his eyes, he was pale, with dark purple half circles underlining his dry, bloodshot eyes. I assume he had done enough crying and the tears simply would not come anymore. A few sharp breaths escaped into my throat as I attempted to calm myself down. As I leaned in to offer my condolences, he enclosed me in a tight hug whispering, “We have to be strong for Bell.” I choked on my words as I tried to answer, settling for a nod of agreement instead. Finally, I reached Bella. We exchanged a meek smile, neither one of us knowing what to say. Her hand filled with a clump of used tissues, her eyes red rimmed, her cheeks tear stained. I leaned in and held her tightly as I whispered, “I’m so sorry, it will be okay.” I knew she had heard it many times before, but did not know what else to say. “I’m here if you need anything,” I assured her as I pulled away. Giving her hand a small squeeze I turned away from her blank stare.

Nerves made my stomach churn and a feeling of dizziness filled my head in the split second it took to turn and face Jake’s body. His face was drained of all color and still bloated from the drowning; his cheeks tinted with the unnatural makeup of the afterlife. A morbid feeling overwhelmed my senses as I realized I would never be able to look at the person whose bright eyes once gleamed back at me from pictures. I peeled my eyes from the scene, no longer wanting the image to fill my mind. Shuffling past the line, still snaking around the corner after I had been inside for an hour, I felt different. It was the acknowledgement that people do die young.

My mind filled with darkness as I thought about my own life; I am not guaranteed a graduation from high school and college, I may never get the chance to get married and have children. In life, there is no guarantee. I stepped onto the lush green lawn and waited for the others. The bright sunlight stung my eyes and the crisp breeze hit my face, sending goose bumps down my arms. The sunny September day had become a chilled evening.

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