It's a rare Monday- not just because both of my boys are busy- one at a STEAM event for school and the other working out at a friend's house. It is rare because it is February in New England, and the hill that I live on- the one that mimics the arctic tundra is soft and open- a balmy 60 degrees... in FEBRUARY. The sun is warming the surface of my skin as I sit on my front steps and listen to the puck traveling across the face of my neighbor's driveway from one boy to the next. The sun is warming me nearly enough to crack open a little bit more... to allow a little of my own steam- steam from the past to filter out- through the pores of my being and onto the page. This is the story of the Second Death- one of my writing and one of my friend- the one who woke me up each morning, singing, "You are my sunshine."
It was summer and we were training for a new crop of students to arrive on campus. We lived in dorms steeped in tradition and ritual. By day, we learned policy, performed organizational tasks, and took young professional courses. At night, we attended soureis for fundraising- junior colleges we were trying to woo. Peter and I started the same day and were inseparable. He was the kind of person who's light and radiance drew crowds toward him. He was larger than life. He escorted me to every event- like a dapper gentleman in a bow-tie, he looped his elbow through mine and held the door. We were inseparable- that is until that day. I returned from a weekend away and arrived a few minutes late to the staff barbecue on the lawn (Peter hated my tardiness).
Looking back, I think I knew something even then. He wasn't there- he was late. This wasn't like him. I convinced Patty to walk over and check on him with me. Despite the sunshine and the smell of food sizzling over charcoal, I knew something was wrong. I knew I couldn't go alone but I also knew that I HAD to go.
I'll never forget the temperature or density of silence. It changes. It can be soothing and open- light and ready for exploration in one moment. It is heavy and cold, like concrete another. We entered Anderson Hall. Walked through the empty, dark corridor and knocked on his door. Loudly, I thought. Maybe, again, it was the silence that made it seem so amplified.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
It wasn't like him. He hated when I was late. He wouldn't be. We used the master key. Click. Click. Crisp metal twisted on metal. Cold.
Walking in, Patty dropped her half eaten apple into the trash can- loud. Cold. A dorm room is all cinder block and industry- commercial grade paints not meant for human comfort, but made to last. It is ninety degree angles, a shotgun apartment- a straight shot from front to the back. A floor lamp glowed in the corner near the photograph of Peter in a gas mask- taken when he studied art. It hung near the small, rectangular window where filtered sunshine seeped through- near where he taught me to press the wrinkles from a tailored shirt using the hot corner of an iron. Next to the spot where we drank coffee and read, "The Story of the Heart" by Sandra Magsaman- where we laughed about his nephews and how he wished he could carry a baby and it wasn't fair only women could.
His music and laughter wasn't there. It was a tomb- and we knew it long before we ever rounded the corner, before the knock at the door, before the click and twist of a key, before the echo of an apple- before the heavy silence, we knew before the black and white and far too little grey.
Still, we flew through the doorway of his bedroom, rounded the corner and found him, fetal, wrapped in a red sheet, cold. The mind might know, but the heart refuses to hear. It might scream and throw up BOLD PRINT, angry words, but the heart won't listen when you want to save someone you love- when you want to save someone you can't.
We performed CPR, even though his ribs wouldn't budge. We performed mouth to mouth, even though his lips wouldn't part- his eyes didn't see and we KNEW it. He'd been gone for hours.
I don't remember who called 911 but I heard the bells of the chapel- dinging- eery in the mid-day air. I don't recall sirens but the bells- I heard them clear as day. Church bells won't ever be the same again.
That night, I slept on my boss's couch. For months, when I returned to my own apartment, I was afraid of the dark. I felt certain that Golum from Lord of The Rings lurked beneath my bed and he was going to kill me. I thought for sure I was going to die.
Losing Peter was the most frightening of deaths for me to this point, and I'd experienced many. An unusual amount- many friends during my final year of college were taken unexpectedly- and the total so shocked my small, private college that we were featured on the national news. It felt a dark web of magic was laced over the people I love and pulling them away from life. I tried to rationalize the icy streets of the college that swallowed up my friends and I tried to figure out the mystery of Peter.
He had diabetes. He told me how to remove his pump if he ever got sick. He'd been sick that weekend when I was away. BUT, I also knew more to his story and he'd given me gifts. One about the magic of crystals, an angel to, "look over my gardens" and a smoky quartz necklace- hand made. My mind raced with clues that would never piece together.
Before his funeral, Patty and I were given a chance to see Peter first. We were asked to speak at his service and I knew it would be one of the hardest things to do. Peter lay there, with his bowtie on. His body was cold but his spirit lingered. The bowtie was upside down- something he often did on accident and I teased him for. Surely the funeral director would not have done that on purpose. Still, there it was, a message from my dear friend from the beyond.
I began to pour into a story. It was my 21st year of life and I 'd seen so much death. That would be the title, "21" and he'd be a pivotal piece of it. Many pages came and traveled with me as I completely rearranged my life. I said goodbye to my fiancé and decided to travel to Arizona to visit my sister. I bought a ticket for Patty and I- and we left. Hours and hours of writing flew beside me. I carried it in a large folder- pages and pages of truth and heart ache and memory. It was my first flight and I was nervous.
I don't remember what distracted me- the fear of landing and putting that tray into the upright position or the sincere desire for the sunshine to heal me., but that story was left on the plane. Like Peter- it will be remembered always but will never be held again.
I still "saw" Peter many times- with an absolute knowing- his energy seemed everywhere. It was in the body of the squirrel that raced me along the pathways- the ones he used to escort me on. I could hear his voice wake me up- like he used to do, singing over the phone lines. I could still smell the starch he used on the collars of his button down dress shirts.
Some weeks and months later, a single picture surfaced on my boss's camera. I was standing on the porch of the main building on campus- where all food and activities are held. The picture was shaded- my arms outstretched like I was flying and I had a big smile on my face. My eyes are squinting because I am in the direct rays of the sunshine. Peter stood directly behind me, in the shadows, smiling, but strong, like a soldier protecting me. Laura caught it. She gave me this gift I will never, ever be able to repay.
To this day, I swear he still looks over me and my gardens. His angel is hanging on my wall. My second son carries his name- including his beloved nickname- Petey. It was the second death of my writing and the birth of a life that was completely different from the day he left us.