A Cousin, A Friend, A Hero, A Stranger

June 1, 2008
By Olivia Papp, Hooksett, NH

Growing up, the one thing I was certain of was that people wouldn’t change. Night would turn to day, seasons and memories would fade, but morals, beliefs and personality would always remain beneath the surface. I was positive of this, until I was forced out of my blissfully naïve world. I learned that even if nothing else can, war changes people. War changed Justin.

When I was born, Justin was already four years old and not sure how he felt about having a new cousin. He had been the only child of the extended family on my father’s side and was always the center of attention. By the time I was a year old, however, Justin had made keeping me safe his duty. We became best friends before I was five, despite our differences in age and gender. Even in teen years, he still made time for his awkward eight year old cousin, and kept me out of trouble.

As I approached my own teenaged years, I grew unsure of so many things; Justin was always the person I could talk to. When I was struggling with early onset depression, I could call him knowing that he would drop everything just to offer calming words or take me out for ice cream. He came to every one of my performances and concerts; I went to all of his baseball games and hockey tournaments. In a time of so much personal growth and change, it sometimes seemed like Justin was the only constant and dependable person in my life.

Around the time I turned eleven, I started to develop the same distinct political views that Justin had. I suppose that we were noninterventionist but it was a bit more complicated than that. We hated the corruption of our government, the lack of focus on causes such as the genocide in Darfur, and the enormous amount of energy invested in fighting an unproductive war in Iraq. We went to rallies and conventions and wrote letters. Neither of us minded being called hippies, because all that meant to us was that we believed in peace over violence, and negotiation over quarrel.

Just weeks after my thirteenth birthday and Justin’s seventeenth birthday, my uncle, Justin’s father, was killed in a street brawl several miles outside Baghdad. We were sitting in Justin’s room listening to Rage Against the Machine and doing homework when my aunt came upstairs and turned on CNN. We watched the name of Justin’s father scroll across the bottom of the screen. I started crying. Justin became irate. He left the house and sped off down the street. I still don’t know where he went that day. It was one of the last times I would ever see the Justin I had come to know and love.

At the funeral, Justin and I clung to each other as we once had when we were small. I held his hand while he stood at the podium to say a few words about his father and about peace. We cried together that night and listened to John Lennon’s Imagine more times than I can count. I fell asleep on my uncle’s bed clutching an old photograph of the two of us. I woke up in my own bed the next morning, empty handed.
The following week, I tried to call Justin a couple times, and deduced that his lack of response had to do with being overwhelmed and emotionally exhausted. A couple more weeks went by. Then a month. Concerned, I decided to stop by one Friday night after school. I went upstairs to Justin’s room. For the first time ever, we sat in silence. The walls, once covered with inspirational quotes, comical posters, hand prints and works of art, were bare. His room was spotless, his clothes organized, his books sat in cardboard boxes in his closet; this was not the room of the artist I knew. We had nothing to say to each other. It became clear that I was not welcome.

Over the next eleven months, I was repeatedly unsuccessful in getting through to him. He had completely lost hope. When he didn’t come to my fourteenth birthday party, I simply gave up. We stopped communicating until I received an e-mail from him in November of my freshman year; “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you – Happy belated birthday. I’m sorry for being distant over the past year or so, but I have news. Would like to see you soon. Justin.” For the first time in so long, I thought that perhaps Justin wasn’t gone. Maybe he had just needed some time.

We went out for lunch at the beginning of the next week. His hair, once curly and long, was shaved down to a crew cut. His eyes no longer held the sparkle of contentment or the fire of ambition. The smile lines around his eyes had been replaced by a seemingly permanent furrow in his brow. Justin, age eighteen, was newly surrounded by the aura of someone much older.

Over coffee, Justin nervously told me he had enlisted in the Army and would be leaving for basic training in less than a month. I was stunned. Justin, my role model, the one who had given me the gift of hope for a brighter and more peaceful future, was turning to the violence that we had fought against our entire lives. He had resolved to join the force that had led to his father’s death. I was speechless. After taking a moment to gather my thoughts, I asked him what on earth had moved him to make this choice. Rather than explaining his decision to me, he told me I “wouldn’t understand” because I was “too young”. I left the restaurant.

Once, at a peace rally in Washington D.C., my aunt, Justin and I had been approached by a reporter asking what could possibly have attracted a twelve year old and sixteen year old to a peace rally. Justin’s response was, “We are here because the constitution gives us the right, as Americans, to voice our opinions, no matter how young we are. And if the people running this nation would open their eyes to the double standards they encourage, even just as much as this sixteen year old boy and this twelve year old girl, maybe, just maybe, there is hope for our country.” These words will haunt me for the rest of my life, as if spoken by a ghost I no longer know. When I look at Justin now, I wonder how he could have abandoned me, but even more so, himself.

Justin is leaving for Baghdad the day before my fifteenth birthday. Almost as troubling anything that could possibly happen in Iraq is knowing that the person who is shipping out is a complete stranger to me. Justin was my cousin, my hero, and, above all, my friend... but war has changed Justin, and nothing can change him back.

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