When I was 17, the hottest kid in the entire world was this guy I knew at Governor’s School (basically an academic summer camp funded by the state). I’ll call him Kevin because he was Irish and that seems like a good Irish name. He was really smart and popular and athletic, and he had the most beautiful face and an amazing body. I had never seen anyone so good-looking in my entire life. He was one of those people who is so attractive that it’s actually kind of disconcerting to look directly at him. It was like looking at the sun.
He was a superstar. Blinding smile. The high school football hero times ten, plus a big brain and heart.
It was stupid, how smart he was.
He was nice to everybody and all the girls liked him. Some of us nerdier folks also grew to resent him, because he was so perfect. You know how those seemingly perfect people are really annoying, with their perfect teeth and perfect hair and perfect way of moving in the world? You ever known somebody like that? Everything just seems to go their way. It’s hard being friends with somebody like that, sometimes. Especially when they’re always upbeat and positive and you feel all mixed up and confused and dorky and, well, teen-ish. Or adult-ish. Or whatever-ish. You can feel “less than” at any age, I guess.
He used to volunteer at a convalescent center for nuns. FOR NUNS. When we were at camp, he’d go on these non-required trips to tutor local little kids. They would climb all over him. They loved him.
I mean, COME ON.
And after we left camp and went back to our regular lives, he started at a new high school. I heard he got nominated for Best Looking and Most Likely to Succeed HIS FIRST YEAR AT THE NEW SCHOOL. When the hell does that happen? He was also elected lacrosse captain and football captain.
Now let’s use the present tense, even though we’re talking about something that happened years ago. Because if I’m going back there, I want you with me.
It’s months after camp ended. I hear Kevin got into Boston College on a football scholarship. A smart Irish Catholic kid’s dream if you come from the East Coast — the perfect spot for the perfect guy. I’m not surprised. This kid is bound for glory. I’m almost past the point of envy (I didn’t get into my first choice school, Chapel Hill) because it’s Kevin. This is just how his life is. And he’s a good guy. If anybody deserves it, it’s him.
And then one day Kevin watches Jeopardy! with his grandmother, and when everybody goes to bed, he walks into the garage, fills a Gatorade bottle with gasoline (or maybe it’s lighter fluid, I forget now) and he locks himself in the bathroom and he drinks some of the stuff and he pours the rest on his body and he lights himself on fire.
His family smells him burning.
The emergency services people come and they break down the door and they lay him down in the living room and they ask him if he can hear them.
He indicates that he can.
He’s airlifted to a hospital and he dies a few hours later.
He is 17 years old.
It’s the first time I’ve ever known somebody who died, besides my grandmother and my great-grandmother and this one little kid’s dad who I maybe had met once who died in a plane explosion over some place called Lockerbie.
It’s the first time I’ve ever known somebody who died young.
It’s the first time I’ve ever known somebody who died when they weren’t supposed to (except that one kid’s dad, and I can’t for the life of me remember if I actually did meet him or just heard about it).
It’s the first time I’ve ever learned that perfect is impossible. Perhaps, in the end, this is the most upsetting thing of all — not Kevin’s death itself, not the manner in which he chose to go (or was it a choice?) but the absolutely decimation of a cherished, easy belief that life is in fact very easy for people who look the right way and act the right way and do the right things.
It turns out life is a lot more complicated than I thought.
The day after I hear about Kevin, I leave on a trip to the land of my great-great grandparents — Sicily — and promptly have a full-on nervous breakdown. There is grief and then there is panic, and I am awash in both.
I lose it — not for the last time in my life. But you never forget your first.
As I’m laying on an exam table at a hospital near the sea, drinking the sedative the nurses have provided me, I wonder if Kevin is there somewhere.
And now let’s move to the real present tense — this moment, here, today, in real time.
I’ve been thinking about Kevin a lot the past few days. His death taught me this above all else: everybody has pain. Everybody. Maybe the best among us carry the most pain of all, sometimes. I don’t know if I believe in God or angels or anything like that. I do believe that we’ve got to make the most of the time we have here. I have fallen short of this goal but I do not believe Kevin fell short of it. I do not believe Kevin was weak or that he was less-than or that he was selfish or a coward.
I believe that Kevin did what Kevin needed to do while he was here, and we’re lucky we had him for as long as we did.
Check on your kids. Check on your friend’s kids. Check on your kid’s friends. Check on your friends. Check on your parents. Check on your grandparents. Despair knows no age limit and depression does not discriminate.
Just let them know you’re there.
I wish I had.
It’s not anybody’s fault, of course. It’s never anybody’s fault. Or maybe it’s everybody’s fault. Think of it however you need to think of it. Think of it however makes sense to you.
And then stick around, please.
I can’t give you easy answers why. I believe you’ll find them yourself, in time, so long as you never stop looking.
You don’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to be good, even.
You just have to stick around, even when it hurts and the pills don’t work and you feel like shit.
No one ever said this was supposed to be easy.
Stick around with the rest of us. We’re not so bad, most of us. And neither are you, to be honest.
Every time I’ve wanted to not stick around — which has happened a lot in my life — I’ve always been glad, minutes or days or weeks or months or years later, that I chose not to go. Something awesome will happen, and I’ll take a moment and go, “Shit, I’m really glad I stuck around.” And then I forget how good it feels, and I want to kill myself again, and I don’t, and the awesomeness arrives in its own due time once again.
Yesterday I spent five minutes pondering how many times I should blink while looking at the wall in order to stave off certain doom.
It gets tiring living in this brain sometimes.
But I stick around, because it also gets awesome.
Photo by Pierre Andrews.