The death of a teenager is beyond words, and even those like painful and tragic do not come remotely close to the stunned place-beyond-language. That’s what I was thinking as I listened to as the Fellas, which is what they’ve called themselves for years, as they woke me with 3am laughter from the living room.
I could picture them out there: Big gangly brand-new college students, possibly drinking cheap beer and most certainly leaving socks and food remnants all over. I kept still, head on the pillow, and listened.
I woke to the sound of my son and his friends in the other room
Their laughter made me smile for the first time in the last horrible week. They were all in my living room, after all — all safe, all sound, with Greg’s celebration of life ceremony just over. They’d been shaken up, they’d been crying, they’d been telling stories, they’d been stunned again, and now, to hear them laughing. Because humans — even sorrowful ones — will laugh with a good memory.
It made me think of all the sleepovers when the Fellas were young, or crashing, as they came to call it later, and all the times I’d been annoyed to be woken. But this? This was a sound worth waking for. Being kept up for.
When their friend was killed they reached out for each other
The fact that one of their friends had so recently been alive — and then hit by a drunk driver and killed — gut-punched us all. But what The Fellas did upon hearing the news was an instinctual behavior that I can only call deeply wise. Enlightened. They simply spread the word via text, wept, and all got in their cars without a plan — all new freshman at various universities across the West — and drove to meet.
That was their only plan: to be with one another.
They did what I did not do: reach out to another person. I was in bed, alone, single, didn’t call one of friends, didn’t reach out.
As we all know, there are many layers of hell.
My son had just Snapchatted the group, “FELLAS NEVER DIE!” — a sweet joking acknowledgment of their fun — only to find out upon waking that Greg had died two hours before he’d sent that message. The guilt for sending such a message, he said, kept crashing around his brain. It was hell for the other Fellas too. Hell for me, waiting for my son to drive across blizzards from Montana to Colorado, knowing he was weeping and distraught and a teenage boy himself. So many layers of hell — for him, for the Fellas, for me, and that doesn’t even come close, I am sure, to the hell the parents were in.
The friends spent the week together mourning their friend
The Fellas stayed in town for a week and rotated among parents’ houses— a week of college missed, a huge swath of emotional territory to be covered. They told stories, met with Greg’s parents, and, in the cases of several of them, they recovered from the ever-present colds they’d had since leaving for college.
So when I heard them laughing at two in the morning, I laughed too. I was so damn relieved that there’d be dirty socks and food in my living room in the morning.
It was not long after my son returned to college that I got a text from my other child, my sixteen-year-old daughter: “MOM, A FRIEND OF MINE JUST DIED. CAN I COME HOME AND MISS THE REST OF SCHOOL?”
“OF COURSE,” I texted back, and dug my fingernails into my scalp. When she got there, we held each other in a long hug. She told me: A mother and her son had been hit by a car that ran a stop sign on the rural roads near our home, both pronounced dead on the scene.
“I’m so sorry, I love you so much,” I said.
“I need to go see my friends,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
She sobbed, “This is ridiculous.”
It was. The number of young deaths my kids have borne witness to is frankly bizarre; the community feels cursed. I don’t know why the death rate is so high. Perhaps because we live in a rural area, perhaps it’s just bad luck.
Many young people have been lost recently
My kids have lost over a dozen friends: Kelsey, who was electrocuted on her family’s farm. Jack, who was killed randomly by the plague—yes, the plague! Sam, who died taking a corner too fast on a dirt road without a seatbelt. Sandra, who was hit by a train while wearing earbuds. Then Greg. Then Josh.
Why these kids? Why so early? Why? Silly questions all, but it doesn’t stop me from asking them late at night, alone.
I called my son — now back in Montana — and asked him how he was doing.
“Well, Mom-bird,” he said. “Do you ever just feel like you’re waiting for the next bad thing to happen?”
I wanted to say something encouraging, but all I could say was, “Yes. Yes, right now, I feel that way myself.” From national news to politics to tragic deaths, it seemed like that’s all I was doing, like an abused puppy on alert for the next kick. “But good things happen all the time too. Big scale stuff, small scale stuff,” I offered. He grunted a vague agreement.
“Life is the full catastrophe,” he then said back, my Zorba the Greek reference that I’ve been using to explain life since they were babies, meaning, we must accept all that life gives us, the full catastrophe of it all.
“Life is a Very Grand Adventure!” I joked back, a saying from Peter Pan which I use to explain the attitude we should take on it.
A philosophy major, he quoted Sartre to me: Everyone dies too early or too late.
We talked about that, how I had helped my father through fifteen years of Alzheimer’s and it lasted too long, but that Greg deserved more time, and it was far too early. But deserve has nothing to do with it, and the world is unfair.
He went on to tell me he’d gone with a new group of college friends into the mountains near Yellowstone — no one would ever replace the Fellas, but these people were interesting and fun too. Some skied, some just hung out and played in the snow. “And Mom,” he said, “it was really beautiful. And yes, Mom, classes are going okay too. And yes, I’m driving safely. And it’s really beautiful here.”
I did everything I could to try to make things better
I spent the winter trying to do the things we all do to defy chaos: I sent sympathy cards. I called the roads department and asked them to do an audit of that local intersection. I read newspaper reports until I was sure that the hit-and-run driver had been arrested.
I reminded my son that although experimenting was fun, he should know what I thought about the smoking and drinking, and that all the Fellas of the world should think of their lungs and their one precious body. I went silk painting with my daughter and her friends.
But most of all, I made a list of my own version of the Fellas — the people I’d gather if news gut-punched me. Because the one beautiful thing I witnessed was this: How my two children gathered their tribe around them. How they went to great lengths to be in each other’s company. And how they talked, really talked — to each other, to me, to therapists.
They talked and shared and wept and then they laughed. Simple, but true: The one thing we have is each other, and each other is what’s worth waking for.
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