She Looked Right at the Heavens

“She looked right at the heavens, prideful, questioning, and that was worrisome indeed.” – Alice Hoffman, The Probable Future

I can remember it in my whole body, as if it happened minutes ago. The phone call that changed my life, shifted my perspective, set off the beginning of the events that would lead me to where I am today.

September 4th, 2008. Having just days before said farewell to my friends from home, I am beginning my senior year of college. Full of hope and the exciting unknown possibility of graduate schools and career options ahead of me. The weather is still warm, though I have packed mostly sweaters in hopes of the brisk, fall air descending upon us soon. I’m catching up with college friends. We’re filling each other in with details from our summers – internships, breakups, travels. Frivolous things fill our minds – our new classes, how much work will we have, who is throwing the first party of the season. I’ve just returned to my dorm room with a friend I don’t feel particularly close to. The last few minutes of unburdened chit chat.

The phone rings. My eye recognizes the number on the caller ID without needing to see a name, a number of someone I couldn’t forget if I tried. I wonder why he is calling, what he could want.

I answer the phone. “Hi, Jenna. Long time. I need to talk to you. Where are you? Are you alone? Can you sit down? I have some bad news…”

And then it struck. Hit me in a core deeper than anything I knew. “Jeremy’s dead.”

I collapse, scrambling to fit the words together. Shattered. We are both crying. Our differences seem silly at the moment in the face of such permanence. I somehow make enough sense of the details to nod and say, “I understand. I’ll see you soon.” The friend who has uncomfortably been observing this devastating moment politely asks if he can do anything before I dismiss him.

When he leaves and I am alone and my mind races in endless circles. I try to dial my boyfriend but only get a voicemail message. Our last words had been unpleasant, taking the space for unimportant arguments for granted. That conversation being marked as “before” in my mind, as all that preceded the phone call would come to be named.

I call my best friend across the country, another friend of Jeremy’s, and am met with no answer. I’ll later find out his phone was lost in a garden somewhere and he went on for another full day unaware of what had occurred. When he finally called me, I screamed and sobbed at him for abandoning me in these moments and made him swear to never die. I tell my parents, my sisters. I call a new friend without knowing why or what to say and she comes over to be with me so that I’m not alone. She would quickly become another best friend and remains so, from across the ocean, to this day.

The separations between the next few days are blurred. I can’t eat, my sleep is fitful and feverish, my dreams full of flames and broken glass. I take a train home and cry the entire way. No one questions me or interrupts my mourning. My group of friends who recently parted ways to start school is reunited, somber, supportive of each other in a way that requires few words and lacks the maturity or experience to do much else. I lose 6 pounds in 5 days. I am led into the funeral with a friend at each side, holding me up for I fear I may collapse under the weight of my brokenness. I am the last the to leave the graveyard after the burial, unwilling to accept that we are leaving him there. The air is cold and the sky is gray, as if all the color has been sucked into the ground with him.
After a few days, I return to school dazed, duller, angrier and begin the steep climb back to normalcy. I am convinced the grief will never lift, that the world will always appear slightly darker. I am furious at no one. Nothing seems important or relevant. I cry uncontrollably at inappropriate times and make those around me uncomfortable. I explain my absence to my Existential Philosophy professor and he apologizes for the content of the class ahead of time, telling me if I’d like to transfer out, he’d understand. I am surrounded by support but have never felt so alone.

This was the beginning, Jeremy. Our friendship, our conversations in your life and death, have led me here. We met when we were young and reckless and knew no bounds. I wonder today, 6 years later, who you would have been if you were still among us in human form.

You had just turned 21, with unbounded energy and potential. Our adventures with our friends during those long summer days – full of parties and questions and heartbreaks and midnight cookies will always be perfect in my mind.

I grasp at memories I have of you yet, over time, I feel them moving farther away. As my grandfather once said after losing my grandmother, loss is like have a song stuck in your head while slowly forgetting the tune.

My entire existence was thrown into question on this day, 6 years ago. I became furious with a God I had previously refused to acknowledge and was eventually no longer satisfied living a life without seeking something greater. To have known you, to have been forced to ask fundamental questions because of your early departure, means to always feel your presence as a grounding backdrop during my life’s most important moments. You were there when I traveled to Israel for the first time, when I stood under the wedding canopy, when I birthed my son. When I feel the soft breeze at dusk in the desert, when I hear my baby laugh, when I cry out in pain. In those moments when I’ve come closest to that endless expansiveness, I come closer to where you are. You’ve lost your boundaries and have touched the infinite and through that journey, have brought us all a little closer with you.