A year before he died, we all walked down to the lake. It was late fall and the middle of the night. The air was cold. The water was freezing. We took off all of our clothes and jumped in.
We didn’t swim. We just submerged ourselves into the water and came up, laughing and screaming. We did it just to say that we had done it. We did it just because we were young and wild and free. We did it just because we could.
We got dressed and came back to the house. We lit a fire. We huddled together under blankets, feeling close and safe and warm.
He took out his guitar and played for us. He sang a song he had written for his little sister. It was about hot dogs. When the song was over, he smiled and we all clapped. That’s all I remember. Funny, the things that stay with you.
He killed himself a year later. I heard the news at work. I got into my car and drove to the river. I sat down beside it and cried. There was nothing else to be done.
I couldn’t have saved him. No one could. At least, that’s the truth we all had to accept in order to survive. Grief has a way of inviting guilt along. The heaviness of their combined weight is enough to make you sink. For days we all had trouble breathing.
He took his life – from himself and from us. He took away the life that was already happening and he took away a life that hadn’t happened yet. Sometimes I imagine his future still lingering somewhere, waiting for him to arrive.
But he also gave me something, a different kind of life, one filled with the awareness of the consequences of giving up too soon, of what is given up when we give up. Because more than once I’ve thought about what might have been waiting for him had he just held on. I’ve thought of the way he might have learned how to suffer a little less. Or, at the very least, he might have learned how to balance his suffering with joy, how to laugh and scream all at once.
I couldn’t have saved him. But often, he has saved me. Because there have been days that have felt dark and cold and endless. There have been days when I’ve considered how easy it would be to just submerge myself into my sadness and never come back up. There have been days when I’ve felt too tired to keep fighting for air.
But always on those days, I have thought of the hot dog song. I can’t remember any of the words. Not even a single note. But I remember the smile that crept up onto his face, and the way we all applauded, and held each other close.
And it reminds me what it is that I’m fighting for each day, as I bravely draw in another breath. It is the chance for these moments – mere moments – when everything feels so safe and warm and possible. I have had many moments like this, and still more are waiting for me to arrive. I cannot give up on them. Not yet. Not now. There is still so much to be done.
And I want to do it all, just to say that I did. Just because I am young and wild and free. Just because I know how to jump and laugh and scream and love the whole world. Just because I can.