They say you never forget your first. Of course, when they say that, I’m sure they probably weren’t talking about the first friend who died, but the sentiment remains true.
I’ve had many memorable days in my 30+ years on the planet, a few of which have dates etched into my memory alongside the experience. April 20, 1997 is one of those dates. In the early morning hours of that sunny Sunday, my friend Joe took his own life. Fifteen years – oh geez, FIFTEEN YEARS – later, I can still feel Kristin’s arms around me as we clung to each other in the chapel (a place I never spent time in prior or since) after hearing the news. I can still feel Chris and Jon’s broad shoulders on either side of me during the memorial service. There were too many of us crammed into that pew, but no one wanted to be apart.
We weren’t especially close friends, especially as we got older and ran in different crowds. Alphabetically, his last name was just before mine, so as children, we sat next to each other a lot. The pictures in my head are faded, fuzzy and relying on the anecdotes we repeat every year around this time more than actual memory. I can hear his voice in my head, but only if I concentrate really hard. I still have the original green ribbon we cut as a way to hold him with us and the rainbow stickers we bought at an all-night Giant. But the rainbow air freshener is gone and the pictures we collected and traded are in a box in my closet.
Joe has now been gone longer than he was in my life (having met when I was 2) and that’s a hard thing to swallow today. I’ve lived half my life without him in it. Perhaps that would have happened anyway; the circle of friends from high school that I’m still in contact with shrinks from year to year. But at sixteen years old, I was brought face-to-face with death in a way I hadn’t been before. I’d attended funerals for my music director’s husband and my friend’s father, but this felt more raw and unjust. Unfortunately, Joe would not be the last friend we lost before his time, but he was the first.
I don’t pin the green ribbon on my jacket anymore, but I do pause each year today and on his birthday to remember my friend. I say a prayer (a rare occurrence for me these days as well) and hope that he is out of pain now. I still look for a rainbow today and next week (when we originally saw the rainbow after his private funeral service). It may be 4/20 day for the rest of the world, but today, I just miss my friend.