Forever Young

Today’s topic is not the happiest, but I felt compelled to write about it.  I had planned to do part II of my Film Heroine series, but something has been looming in my mind this week, and I feel it necessary to purge my brain to try to make sense of it.  Thanks for bearing with me.

Last weekend, a middle and high school classmate of mine was killed in a car accident back home in Missouri.  He was 25 years old; a military vet who enthusiastically worked at the Buckle in our local mall upon returning from his service.  Only a few days before, he had been in good spirits, joking with friends online.  Eerily, his last tweet dated just a few days before his death read “Don’t drink and drive.  Call a cab!!”

Admittedly, he and I were never all that close when we were in school together.  We had a few classes together, but didn’t really hang out with each other outside of our shared academic world.  My high school was small (my graduating class was around 156-ish), so you basically knew everyone even if you weren’t best friends or in the same social circle.  He was a nice guy, extremely personable, and could always back up his opinions with solid logical arguments (we had sociology together, and he made some truly great discussion points).  He was of Mexican descent so people always were making jokes, but he laughed and made his own jokes right alongside them.  Naturally, we all graduated and went our separate ways: me to college in Oklahoma to study musical theatre and him into the military to serve our country.  I didn’t think of him much beyond the occasional Facebook post that would float across my newsfeed or when a mutual friend would mention his name.  But I was always impressed with his work ethic and enthusiasm for whatever he was doing.  The last time I saw him in person was graduation day as he walked across the stage to get his diploma: May 2007, nearly six years ago.

Word travels fast in a small town, and even though I live over a thousand miles away, I was bombarded with messages and posts all over my Facebook about his passing.  For some strange reason, I couldn’t believe the news.  I had seen him post April Fools jokes only days before.  My heart sank.  How could this be?  I couldn’t explain the sudden sadness I felt for a person I only occasionally sat in classes with for seven years.  25 years old and gone.  Never married.  No children.

I’m not sure if it’s the fact in a mere seven months I myself will be 25 or what, but it all feels so wrong.  What if I go to bed tonight and that’s it?  Or am struck by a cab on my way home?  All the dreams and hopes and wishes for my future suddenly vanish along with my mortality.  No one’s future is certain, no longevity of life guaranteed.  It’s a cold, hard smack to the face when you lose someone young.  A wake up call to your own mortality.  Are you living your life as fully as possible?  What’s holding you back from making each day count?  You can’t live in fear of dying the next day, but you should always remember that it’s going to happen at some point so you better get busy, right?

When someone young dies, are we really mourning their death or the death of their potential, their untapped talents?  Of course we’re mourning the loss of the person, but perhaps we’re just as sad about the “what ifs” that will never play out, the dreams never turned into realities.  I still have trouble processing the death of actor Heath Ledger because as an actor myself, I saw so much potential, whole reservoirs of talents meant for a longer, larger, luminous career.  To see him so alive onscreen, such raw energy and instinct, is a shock to the system when you remember he’s been gone for five years.

I guess what I’m really feeling is the preciousness of my own mortality.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve always operated as if death was so far away, that I was invincible somehow; death would come when I was ready, not the other way around, you know?  Rudy’s death has shaken me up more than I thought, because I realized that I don’t get to decide how long my life will be.  I’m not in total control, invincible until I decide to let go.  We take our youth for granted, believing we have the entire world — our life — at our fingertips.  And we do, because anything can happen.  That’s the point: ANYTHING can happen…both good and bad.  I don’t try to dwell on the bad, but maybe I’ve made myself numb to the idea that anything bad could happen to me or anyone I know or care about.  Bad things happen.  Good things happen.  That’s just how life works.  And the hard part is accepting BOTH.

I think about all the times I’ve stopped myself from doing or saying things because I was so worried it would make me look stupid or hurt me somehow.  The funny and possibly idiotic reality is what I’ve really done is robbed myself of things that might have enriched my life in weird ways.  I overanalyze everything because I think I can logically solve all my life problems before they even happen and have some control over my life, but that’s ridiculous, because I can’t control what another person is going to say or do, how they’ll react to me and my actions.  I’m 24 years old and still sometimes operate like a teenager, thinking that someday I’ll get it right and take a risk and not be scared shitless of my own actions.  But what am I doing?  I keep putting things off for the next day, because I have tomorrow to deal with it.  Rudy never got that chance, and I could lose mine too.

I didn’t mean for this to turn into some tale of morality and mortality and carpe diem and all that, but maybe that’s what it really is all about.  All of it.  Everything we do is added to the story of our lives, whether that story is short or Tolstoy-length.  And maybe we don’t get to decide the length of our life story, but we DO get to decide the content, the characters, and maybe the ending if we’re lucky.  I’m sorry that my classmate didn’t get a longer story, but it’s one worth knowing even if it’s a slightly cautionary tale.  I just hope I can make my own story worth knowing, choose the right people to inhabit it, learn from my mistakes, let things go.

Rest in peace.  You’ll be missed.