I think I was 16 the first time I saw a dead body. She was a someone I called a friend, who was probably more of an acquaintance, as most teenage high school girl relationships tended to be. She died in a roll-over accident on the way home from school. I went to the funeral. Her face looked plastic and misshapen. She was powdered, and dusted, and glossed. I found it strange. They brought in a grief counselor for an all-school assembly and wanted ‘her friends’ to say something about how they were feeling to the rest of the students who had all gathered in the auditorium. I stood up and came to the microphone that teetered on a narrow flimsy stand borrowed from the band room. “She didn’t wear make-up,” I said simply. There was a long pause. And then I went back to class.
I was maybe 17 the first time I saw someone killed. We had met early in the evening and talked about his trip. He was 19 and was backpacking across America. He seemed so grown up with his worldly stories but looked just like any other awkward gangly boy trying to find a way to stand close enough to still have a conversation while moving side to side enough to feign dancing. He leaned forward toward me, I assume to say something that I might actually hear over the deafening music. I didn’t hear anything but 3 loud pops…Like a car backfiring or the speakers blowing. I looked right into his eyes. He didn’t fall back like in the movies. He just crumpled limp onto the ground like every bone had been removed from his body and he no longer had structure. Everyone was diving, and crawling, and screaming, and scrambling away. Some bleeding, all frightened. I just stood there…confused. I watched this vibrant passionate person become something else, something hollow. Like he just wasn’t real anymore. The blood poured thick like maple syrup on the floor from his head and looked black as oil in the dim light. I stood there for what seemed like a long time. The blood slowly traced the lines of my vans before I finally stepped back with one of my laces dragging behind like a trail of breadcrumbs meant to remind me of the importance of where I had once stood. I kept the shoes.
I was 25 when my very best friend died. We met in 8th grade outside of Biology class. She was in the hallway crying and I needed an excuse to skip class. I introduced myself and proceeded to be a bad influence on her for all of her remaining years. Her mother hated me when I got her to sneak out and eat oreos and pizza, her other friends weren’t fond of me because I ‘didn’t respect her condition’, and I hated the boy that would be her husband because he wouldn’t quit smoking which thus prevented her from qualifying for the donor list. Our last conversation will forever be burned into my memory as I encouraged her to take a trip to Europe that she had always wanted to, but everyone else in her life felt she ‘shouldn’t’. She called me more excited and enthusiastic than I had ever heard her, “I’m getting on the plane! I can’t believe I’m going! I’m getting on the plane!” She got quiet for a moment…serious in her tone, “I just want you to know…umm…Thank you.” I was quiet too. It seemed important. “You are the only person I’ve ever known who didn’t treat me like I was dying.” I couldn’t speak for a moment and then she rushed off the phone saying the plane was boarding and she had to go. It was the last time I would speak to her. She returned from her first trip out of the country and died 5 days later.
I was 31 the first time I told someone that they were going to die. I was just a just a photographer, but they were short handed and had no one else to do it. She was 28 and tried to politely listen to me umm’ing and well’ing, fumbling for exactly how best to tell a single mother of 4 whose husband had recently been killed in a machinery accident that her children would soon be orphaned by the complications associated with her advanced stage AIDS. After she finally understood and the tears streamed quietly down her dehydrated cheeks her eyes met mine and she said, “but who will care for them? They are just babies with no family.” She scooped her oldest—a boy, maybe 6 years old—into her arms that were already laden with the two small infant twins papoosed together against her breast and a quiet girl with eyes much older than her 3 years that had been clinging to her knee the whole time. She looked at me with desperate eyes, “You have to take them! They will die here. There is no one here for them, there is no one!” She pulled at the arms of the two older children now crying and held them out to me. They clung to her desperately, I did not reach out. She crumpled to the ground shaking and sobbing. She was the first of 11 people that I gave that same news to that day.
I was 34 the first time I was supposed to save someone and failed. I was the one who spoke to her last, I heard her last words, and listened to her last gasping breath. I pressed her chest so hard that it cracked like so many toothpicks, and I willed her heart to beat… but it didn’t. She was the end of an idealistic fairytale, she was the beginning of what has served me as a bitter and beautiful reality. Life will end, we will die, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.
I see dead people…every single one of us…and every single one of those already gone just wanted to live…just one more moment…just one more breath.
Life is happening…Breathe it in.