In a few days, it will be the sixteenth anniversary of the death of Jeremiah. Every August, as the end of the month begins to peek up over the fence, I think about my friend Jeremiah and how he died, when he died, and where he died. I never think about why he died because there is no answer to that question, just the sound of a small rock being dropped into a well. The best thing to do is to think about Jeremiah when he was alive, okay. But his untimely death is part of him; its fact throws all that he was and everything he did into relief.
It’s easy to mythologize people after they’re gone: the mean old grandpa ends up not being so much of a jerk, the neighbor wasn’t really that annoying, etc. But Jeremiah was — truly — kind of a god. He grew up in Winterset, IA, but that made no sense. This boy was a prince from a far-off land. In our circle of friends in high school, he was more than the Alpha; he was the Omega, too. This was the mid-1990s and Jeremiah looked like he was in the coolest band that didn’t exist yet on MTV’s Alternative Nation. He was wicked smart, loved to read, and it’s possible he invented the devilish grin. I was actually in 8th grade when he was a senior in my sister Hannah’s class; those two, plus James, my sister’s boyfriend, were the best of friends and that meant Jeremiah was at our house a lot with the rest of the gang. That he paid any attention to me at all blew me away. Jeremiah’s attention was sunshine.
We all ended up in Iowa City for college. Hannah, James, Jeremiah, and our friends Sarah and Ryan all lived in a house together off campus. I didn’t live in the house but I might as well have. We were thick as thieves. Jeremiah was dating achingly pretty, whip-smart Sara Beth. He was going to go to France the next year to study. There were amazing parties. There was so. Much. Laughing. And Jeremiah bought a motorcycle because that’s the sort of thing Jeremiah did.
He crashed it not more than a few blocks from the house. Sarah (housemate) was on the back of the bike and was thrown, but survived with minor injuries. Jeremiah splashed into the street. His head slammed into a parked car. While waiting for the ambulance, my sister arrived and she held him. She’s only told me about those agonizing minutes with him once. Exactly once, and now it’s been sixteen years. So.
James, Hannah, and I were at the hospital all night. Jeremiah’s mother and father made the 3-hour drive from Winterset to Iowa City in a little over an hour. Jeremiah was dying. His brain was swelling, wouldn’t stop. I saw the doctor come out and tell his mother there was nothing they could do and the sounds that came from inside that woman were indescribable. We got to go in and say goodbye. He was all wrapped up in gauze. Everything had gone inside out. All color had drained from every galaxy. Nothing could ever, ever be good again. This was not happening. Not happening.
Nothing about Jeremiah dying was good. It’s not a situation where you say, “Oh, well, you know, it was really lousy at the time, but it turned out okay because…” Nope, not this one, and I suggest you do not suggest it — not to me, not to my family, not to his. The world is missing a Christmas light. That beautiful string of Christmas lights on the tree, right there in the center of all that pine is a dark patch and you can never, ever get light there again. You can still have a good holiday. There will still be presents and good food and family. But you’ll look over — sometimes even by accident — and you’ll see that dark spot and feel sad. Because it is sad. It’s the saddest thing in the whole, whole, whole wide world.
No one has ever stopped loving that person.