Loving & Losing & Losing Again

San Francisco, 2014

San Francisco, 2014

Life’s so strange.

As I write this, it is the sixth year anniversary of the death of the first boy I ever loved. I say that, while I sit in the bedroom of my cousin, who also passed away just over seven months ago. I sit here, physically surrounded by Kevin’s things and mentally surrounded by my memories of Troy, wondering when my life became so marked by the presence of those I’ve lost. And when I became such a morbid, whining fucking sap.

But nevertheless, this is my life. And all I can do is try and make sense of it. And that, unfortunately, comes with the need to write and the need to share. I’m a firm believer in sharing your truth. I hate this refusal to be vulnerable or share our feelings. I hate this internet culture we’ve bred that embarrasses people when it comes to having emotions, deep ones, ones that are fucked up, and the desire to put them out there. I used to wear my hardness with pride, like the more emotions I let roll off of me the thicker my skin became. I come from a long line of hard people, so it’s difficult to break from. But it took me a while to realize I don’t want to be hard. I don’t want to close myself off from the sensitivities of life, of feeling, of emotion.

Fuck that. This is my truth. This is my life.  

But, I digress.

The easiest way for me to deal with things has always been to write them down. Transforming an experience into words allows me to make sense of it. Assigning names to my emotions and structuring sentences out of them has always given me a new understanding which I haven’t been able to find inwardly. Putting events on paper has allowed me to sort through them, to try and make some sense of something that rattles my most basic understanding of life. But whenever I’ve attempted to write about Troy’s death, the words have alluded me. Throughout my numerous attempts over the past six years to try and make sense of that night and the months that followed, I end up with a muddle of emotions and words which bear zero resemblance to what I felt. Words, for me, have always been the thing closest to representing human experience. But I failed to find any which even remotely described mine.

So again, let me start off by telling you a story.

When I started kindergarten, the fates had aligned somehow that I would share a classroom with this beautiful little blonde haired boy who at five already had a confidence that rivaled anyone I’ve ever met in the years since. We spent the next thirteen years in school together (minus a brief period when he moved away). Those thirteen years are fraught with memories. Even now I sometimes think of a new one. They’re filled with happiness, innocence, affection, and love. But they’re also filled with regret, anger at myself, and embarrassment for being a brat of a kid who didn’t know how to appreciate anything or anyone. But the good outweighs the bad. I thank the universe for that.

How lucky am I that my earliest memories are of Troy chasing me around a classroom and a gym, teasing me or trying to steal a kiss or two from my cheek. Even then he was a charmer and he only got better as the years went by. For my entire time in elementary school, I would race other girls to the front of the lineup during lunchtime in order to try and steal a spot next to Troy. I remember sitting in the gym, eating noodles out of a purple thermos while Troy sat next to Rebecca and I while he tried to guess what kind of shampoo we used in the shower. Honestly, he was six or seven and already the biggest flirt I’ve ever known.

I remember getting ready for school concerts and special events, my sister arranging my hair in some ringlets or an updo while I daydreamed about seeing Troy. He was always what I looked forward to most. I remember stealing hugs in the corridors. I remember him giving me a gold bangle as a Christmas gift in the third grade, holding it out to me next to the classroom door. I remember him calling me in the evenings. I remember being kids. I remember him telling me he loved me and having no idea what that truly meant but just being glad to hear it. I remember being innocent. I remember being unafraid to tell some little blonde boy how much I liked him. I don’t remember giving him a card that said “I love you, Troy. I hope you love me too.” But apparently, I did because his sister found it after he died. I remember being thirteen and feeling pretty for the very first time at our seventh-grade prom while he danced with me and asked if he could kiss me. I remember feeling nervous as I said yes. I remember it like it was yesterday, walking out of our middle school that night like I was on top of the world. How lucky am I, to have shared my first kiss with a boy who made me feel that same way for the thirteen years I knew him? Pretty fucking lucky.

He called me throughout that summer. We were thirteen but that didn’t stop us from making plans. We talked about being together as serious as two kids could. But that summer another boy came to stay in Wild Cove for a few weeks and he was right there and he made me feel nice too and I was thirteen and didn’t know what I had in my hand or what was right in front of me or how to appreciate it.

That coming fall we started high school together. Troy came into our class with the same confident gait he would carry for the next four and a half years and sat in the desk in front of me. And we picked up right where we had left off, the same two kids who a short time ago had held hands in the skating rink when the power went out and stole seats next to one another on the bus ride back to school.

But I was a stupid kid. God, I was stupid – always looking out for the next best thing and never recognizing what was right in front of me, something I continuously have to work on even now. A couple years later, when talking about our graduation, Troy would tell me that I was going with him and my awful response would be “Troy, we could be dead by then.”

It shouldn’t need to be said but because I’m anxious and because I worry that people think I’m an asshole (which I was for such a long time it’s ironic that I now care) I’ll say it anyway. I don’t write all this without regard for the other people Troy cared about or the ones who cared about him in return. I write this with full regard of you, with you in my heart as I type each word. I don’t flatter myself into thinking I was the only one he ever cared for. In fact, if that were true, I’d be incredibly sad to think no one else got to experience the relentless affection he doled out towards people he cared for. I write this in hopes that my particular memories about Troy help to strengthen our collective memory of him just a little bit more. I write this to share my story and to strengthen the memory all while understanding my Troy was just a small part of a much bigger, much better, much more loved human. And I’m happy that his time towards the end of his life was spent with a girl he cared for.

But he was still Troy. He gave out these giant bear hugs to every girl he could get his hands on endlessly. He knew the corniest, cutest things to say at the right moments and took full advantage of those particular times whenever they came around. Troy did not let the opportunity for delivering a good pick-up line pass him by. That is a lesson each of us can take from him still, to take each opportunity given to us and to make use of it.

While I grew into a teenage girl, chasing after boys who didn’t give even the slightest of fucks about me, Troy was always there. He was a beacon when I was sad, a familiar touch whenever you really needed it. I know he was this for a lot of you, for all of you even.  But unlike most of you, I took him for granted. He always gave so freely, not just to me, but to anyone who needed it. But I often took it and gave nothing back. Throughout my thirteen years knowing Troy, he was always there. He never gave up on me, or anyone. Troy loved, no matter who it was, without fear. He did things without holding back. He loved strongly. And his relentlessness in his affection is something I miss every day.

There was one particular day in school when he and I had spent a lot of time together. On the way to the bus that afternoon he asked me again to kiss him, much like he did the first time. But this time I said no.  It was, I’m sure, one of the biggest mistakes of my life. But that no, and the constant no’s I gave to him would have turned most people away, would have stopped any more advances dead in their tracks. Most of us would be too embarrassed, too full of self-doubt to try again. But that wasn’t Troy. Again, he was absolutely relentless in his affection. I think of that now and I call it brave. I admire it. And I wish I was more like him in that way. I wish I was more unafraid to be relentless in anything.

When I think of how reckless I was with someone else’s feelings, how irresponsible I was, how unappreciative I was, I’m racked with guilt. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past six years beating myself up over it. Maybe this is a way to forgive myself for it. Maybe I never will. But how could I have ever known that sometime later I would get a phone call that would make my whole world stop?

I was getting ready for school when the phone rang. My best friend’s phone number appeared on the caller ID, somewhat unusual. I answered it.

“Sabrina, Troy died last night.”

“Troy who?” was my response.

I’ve come to learn that in those moments your brain, or at least mine, is incapable of linking the obvious together. Troy and death was not an association my mind could communicate to me. They were not words that would ever, should ever, belong in the same sentence. They were not two concepts that could share the same thought. What was being told to me was not physically possible. This world wouldn’t allow it, would it?

There comes this moment when you have to bridge that gap, to make the connection, but god damn me I did not want to do it. I did not want to accept what was being told to me. But it was real. And it hurt. And it cut deeper than anything I had ever felt up to that point. And I hated it. And that hate stayed with me for a long time.

My mom came home from work shortly after Rebecca had called. She was working at the hospital when Troy was brought in. She had thought I had known and hadn’t called to tell me. She had seen him, touched him. She had confirmation that what I was being told was as real as it could ever be

Wild Cove

Wild Cove

I remember standing in the kitchen crying while my two parents stood incapable of assuaging the hurt I was feeling. I fear for when that moment of inability comes if I ever become a parent. I went to school that morning. I didn’t want to be alone. The hallway that we sat in before every homeroom was the most silent it has ever been, I’m sure. One of our friends hadn’t heard the news and sat down to us knowing something was wrong. I think of that moment sometimes, having to share the news with another human that will undoubtedly break some small part of them and what it means to hold that responsibility in your hands.

Our teacher brought us into a classroom and talked to us about what had happened. There were boxes of tissues shared amongst memories and tears. We were a shaken bunch of fragile teenagers but amidst the anger, I’m sure we were thankful for the presence of one another. We got sent home early that day. There was an impending snow storm but not a flake had fallen when we filed out of the building at noon. There was no learning to be done that day. They let us go because the sadness was just too much to house.

I don’t remember much about the following days. I remember the funeral. I remember being sad. I remember my dad coming in my bedroom while I sat on my bed crying and looking at me so helplessly, while all of his own loss sat on his shoulders like a weight that I could suddenly see very vividly. Like I finally understood some part of him I hadn’t before. I remember seeing everyone close to Troy, his family and his very best friends and my heart breaking for them. But mostly, I remember being angry. I remember later sitting down to do homework for my English class but for the first time being unable to write. In the face of loss, it feels like nothing you do really matters. I sat there so frustrated with this life I was given. I thought if life is so short, why am I wasting my time doing this when it could all be over tomorrow? I thought about how futile the struggle is. What is the point in trying to accomplish anything when death is staring at you so closely? When it is all that you feel and all that you see when you close your eyes? Why work when the end is so inevitable? Why try when it could all be ended with a phone call? Why did any of it matter? None of it mattered. I was seventeen and I thought that nothing mattered.

I became a miserable person for a while after that. But I’ve been continuously lucky to have a constant circle of supporters who have always managed to bring me back to the light. Shortly after Troy had passed, I had gotten a message from Kevin. From Ontario, he reached out to me to see how I was. For some reason, that continued to stand out to me for years. Now it seems to make sense, as I sit here letting the sadness of both of these losses weigh on me, something that’s cathartic as I think emotions demand to be felt. Amidst it, I smile because I feel that Troy and Kevin could have been good friends, in another life or another world. They shared things, Troy being from the same town where Kevin’s mother is from and where his grandfather still lives. And I suppose in another way they also share me, as a link that will carry them both with me wherever this world and life takes me. And of course, if heaven is as real as I was taught to believe in my early formative church-going years, they’ll share that too.

In the six years since Troy has passed, I’ve learned a lot of things. Most importantly, I’ve learned to not take people or things for granted. I’ve learned how important it is to let the people who matter to you most know just how much they matter. Trust me when I say if there is nothing else I can impart to you, tell everyone you love that you love them. Write it in the sky. Shout it from the rooftops. The last words I said to Troy were not nice ones. In fact, they were mean. That continues to break my heart. But Kevin and I, drunk like we liked to be, exchanged I love you’s under lit trees and the loud beat of techno music. I’ll take what I can get and hope that both of them know just how much they meant to me in life, and how much they continue to mean to me still.

I’ve learned that bad days will come, ones that bring you to your knees, where shutting yourself off from feelings and emotions becomes a necessary act of survival. But I’ve also learned that the good days, the ones where the sun feels brighter than it’s ever been, that those are the ones where love lives and they make the bad days almost worth it. And you deserve to feel them. You can’t know the good without the bad, and once you’ve known the bad you appreciate the good so much more. Feeling love at its peak, at its most undiluted form, makes feeling pain worth it, or so I like to tell myself anyway.

So, hug the people you love a little closer. Say I love you a little more often. And don’t waste this life you’re given. Because you truly never know when the ground will give way beneath you. Or when a phone call will come that will change your world forever.

Sabrina Pinksengrief, loss