October is one of my favorite months. I love the cool weather, I love the ramp-up to NaNoWriMo (more info on that at a later point), I love Halloween. Fall is my season.
But it also marks a number of anniversaries for me. Two years ago, my entire nuclear family dissolved out from under me. Things are better now, my parents are finding happiness and I’m healing over a lot of relationship wounds that I’ve been carrying since I was seven.
One year ago, my grandfather passed away. I travelled 1200 miles in 12 hours to be with my family, and made it to his hospital room just in time. It was an intense experience, but not a negative one. I’d do anything to have my story end as well as his did. I love him a great deal, and it hurt. But I wouldn’t change a moment of the experience.
October, my favorite month, makes me think about endings and rebirth. So for this first October post, I’m going to write about my first experience with death. Warning: this is another major bummer of a post. But it’s important, and it’s on my mind, so here goes.
Her name was Sarah Foster, and I was eight years old.This is a story I’ve told a thousand times. Some of the data may be wrong: these are memories from when I was five to seven years old, and bits of information I’ve gleaned over the years.
In a hopefully-rare stroke of pretentiousness, I consider Sarah my muse: she’s the reason I started writing, and her lasting influence winds up in the background of every word I put on paper. I published a semi-fictionalized version of this story in high school, and she’s the inspiration for the semi-fictional novel I started for NaNo last year.
Sarah Foster was a sweet, smart kid. She was blonde and sunny and silly. She was goofy. She was strongly, intensely creative: one of my strongest memories of her is her surprisingly on-point wordplay. I met this kid in kindergarten, and she had a sling around her arm. My mom asked her if she’d hurt her arm, and she replied, brightly, that she was fixing her arm. That was her sense of humor.
This was why we were close. In a world of conversation that consisted of making weird noises and repeating things ad nauseam, Sarah and I could actually talk. Our inside jokes were clever, or at least clever for that age: she could talk circles around me when she wanted to. I was young beyond clear memory, but I remember that.
She died when I was seven, in early July.
Sarah had a heart condition. It was serious, and it was a medical miracle that she made it to seven years old. She died at summer camp, playing a game with another friend, and I wasn’t there. My mom got the phone call and told me she had died, and I buried myself in a book. My memory, already fuzzy, very specifically blanks out after the words “Sarah Foster died,” and returns at the funeral, with my fingers playing along the smooth wood of the pews.
This was my first experience with death. My best friend was there, and then she was gone, and life kept happening around me. My other best friend moved away that summer. I went into second grade, with a teacher that just did not understand me. The school did nothing, even though Sarah’s mom worked there, and the other students in my class didn’t really understand what had just happened.
Death is a crucible.
When my grandfather died last year, I was surprised at not being sad. I was more glad to have known my grandfather than sad to have lost him, and I wasn’t sure if that made me a bad person or what. It wasn’t a negative experience: just big, and strange. I could feel myself changing, the old skin of my personality sloughing away and revealing this new, naked, raw person underneath.
I don’t remember that happening when I was seven. I can see where it did, though, just by looking at the aftermath.
I had friends after that. Some of whom I’m still in contact with, and pretty close to. But there was a part of me, for a really long time, that sheltered a deep-seated mistrust of those relationships. I loved them. I cared about them. But it took me a very long time to realize that they loved me, and that none of them were going to leave or die.
I went to school after that. Hell, I still work in schools. But my school was no longer a safe place: they hadn’t protected me, and they hadn’t protected Sarah, and they did nothing to help me through the experience. I promptly decided life was too short to spend following someone else’s agenda, and in second grade decided I had better things to do. This is a decision I stand by wholeheartedly.
I had family after that. I am ridiculously close to my parents, and I really couldn’t have asked for a better mom and dad. They are amazing people who did an amazing job raising me. But they were in mourning too, and they didn’t know how to handle it. In my grief, I was alone.
I learned to handle grief. I learned to handle the temporary nature of love. The crucible made me stronger. But I’m still learning how to have healthy friendships: it took me until college to realize that it’s okay for people to care about me, and it took me until this year to understand I don’t need to care about the people who don’t.
I’m lucky. And I’m only growing luckier with time. I’m glad to have known those who passed: I’m excited to be close to those I still have with me.
And I’m grateful for those I’ve known.
Totally unrelated upcoming events:
If you’re in the Iowa creative corridor (Cedar Rapids/Iowa City area), come to ICON41 this weekend! Erin Casey and I have an awesome session lined up on worldbuilding, 4-6 PM on Saturday. Also, feel free to say hi on the NaNoWriMo site next month: I’m AlexPenname.