The first time I ever dealt with death it had nothing to do with a human being. It was my dog Digger, the love of my life.
The day he died I felt numb. I remember floating around in my friend’s pool, staring up at the sky and wondering if there was a dog heaven, if he would be buried in our backyard, and if that was something I even wanted.
I didn’t deal with death again until a year or so later at the age of 12 when my grandfather died. In 2007 I had three family members pass away in a span of eight months. I lost my other grandfather in 2010. Still, none of that could have prepared me for what happened a year ago Tuesday.
That guy on the right there was a brother to me throughout college. I did a lot of dumb things, but I would have done more and even dumber ones if he wasn’t around to keep an eye on me. John acted as not only my guardian, but a protector for three of my closest girlfriends and myself.
Bubba, as we called him, was a fun guy, honest and handsome and fiercely loyal. The first time I even met him he introduced me to our friend Vince as “my cousin Vinny,” Italian accent, Vito Corleone mouth and all.
Johnny was part of a unit we called the “10th Floor” all of freshmen year, the group of guys that lived on the 10th floor of the boys’ dormitory. Even after they all moved out, everyone stuck together until graduation.
I’ve cried to him, laughed with and at him, and marveled at his sincerity no matter what the situation was. He was truly a caring person who would do anything for anyone.
John’s life was cut short on August 21 last year. About a week prior he got into a single-car accident that sent him careening into a tree off the Garden State Parkway during the night. None of us are still really sure what caused it.
That week was hellish, constant messages being shot back and forth between people to check on how he was doing. He hung in the balance for a while and rumors flew that he was gone way before he actually went. We knew it was grim but kept hope. Finally, our worst nightmare came to fruition and he was lost to this world.
The three girls and I stayed in a hotel in Philadelphia for the viewing and funeral. The viewing was just about as awful as you could imagine. We saw a lot of the people we used to hang out with and caught up with them, but as soon as we walked into the viewing room it was impossible to speak. The four of us stood in front of Johnny with no idea what to even think. How could someone so young be gone?
We went out for drinks that night and reminisced about the time we had with John, our nerves twisted over what was to come the next day. The whole thing just didn’t seem real – or fair.
We were fine for much of the service. Tears came when John’s brother and sister spoke about him. Eyes became watery when we saw the row of boys from the 10th Floor in a pew all silent, melancholy; the exact opposite of what they had been in our days of friendship.
There are two things from that day that I will never get out of my head and it has to do with those boys, who acted as such pillars of strength during my college years, such amazing friends, tough guys.
Some of our boys were pallbearers. On the way out of the church my friend Andrew was a mess as he carried the coffin. His head was down and his shoulders were shaking. You could see that his cheeks were tinged red, tears pouring down them. He was losing it and Vince, who was standing behind him, knew it. He put his hand on Andrews shoulder and started to shed some tears himself.
The gravesite was packed with people, all of whom received a flower to put on John’s casket as a final goodbye. Us girls hung back and waited to be some of the last. Right before us were the boys. Each of them, about half a dozen, walked up to the coffin, kissed his hand, touched it to the casket, then set the flower down. It was such a morbid, yet beautiful thing to see. One after the other after the other, saying goodbye to a dear friend. I leaned over into my friend Ali’s shoulder and sobbed, almost unable to even make it to the casket myself.
Sometimes on holidays I still try to text John to say hi, then I remember there’s no one on the other end. I can’t bring myself to get rid of his number.
There was a stack of cards and Sharpies at the viewing, made available so people could write a message to John for the family to read later. We all grabbed one, but mine never made it in the box. What was I going to say?
I think it’s stupid that you’re gone. There are people in this world who deserve the fate you had but you? There was no reason for you to go.
None of that came out. I couldn’t even conjure up a single memory to write down.
Instead, what I have in my night table drawer is a manilla note card with “Bubba,” written on top in blue marker. The rest is blank.
Whenever I feel sad or alone I take it out and hold it in my hands, and speak out everything I’m feeling to him. That one blank card is a vessel to my Johnny, who I know is listening and continues to watch over me still.