It’s easier to understand death when it doesn’t come as a surprise. My grandpa turned 90 last week and I can say with little sadness that his life is coming to an end. He’s confined to the steel bars of his walker with its set of decaying tennis balls on the bottom, and the plastic seat of his wheelchair. To him, it must sometimes feel like those bars are a prison. A prison of old age. For him, leaving that behind will be a relief and a new adventure. But when death comes unexpectedly in a crushing, jarring crash of steel and metal, it’s impossible to understand.
It’s 7 a.m. on the day that I have to take the SAT. I turn the music on in my silver Volvo 240 and head towards Rockhurst High School. The song is “Charlie” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Once inside, the test goes pretty much as planned: four-and-a-half hours filled with bubbling and erasing. A few kids break out the string cheese and Nutri Grain bars as brain food during the intermissions. I just sip the metallic water from the drinking fountain and try not to stare at the hands of the clock.
“I have to get out of here,” I think to myself. I glance up across the room lit by cheap fluorescent lights, the walls the color of sour milk. Ten minutes to go and my head is an aching jumble of useless rewording, reasoning and reading. The midpoint formula and the volume of a cube jumble together with passages about everything from nature to an explanation of earthquakes.
After slopping down a halfhearted essay on Machiavellian ethics I stuff my two dulled Ticonderoga pencils in my jean pocket and walk out into the hall. I’m planning on a nice, relaxing day of TV, a chicken burrito with everything but beans from Chipotle and maybe a party that night. Then I hear the words that make that impossible.
“Duncan, do you know anything about Bryan?” A girl from my school asks with a concerned look on her face.
“No, what happened? Is he in trouble?” I say, thinking that Bryan probably got busted at a party, or maybe broke an ankle while heelflipping a ten stair on his skateboard.
“I got a text from Erika,” she says, “saying ‘my friend Bryan is in the hospital in a coma. Pray for him’.”
I can’t manage any words. My thoughts skitter away in 1,000 different directions. Bryan in a coma? Did he fall while skating? Was he in a car with a drunk driver? I call my friend and Bryan’s best friend Adam as soon as I leave the building. He answers with a distant hello, like I’m talking to him through an intercom and he’s miles underground.
“Adam, did something happen to Bryan?” I ask. “What’s going on?”
There’s a pause and Adam’s voice quivers. “Let me call you back.”
I feel dazed as I climb into my boxy Volvo again. I back out in the midst of a couple hundred exhausted and relieved teenagers and my phone dings. It’s a text message from Adam. I stop abruptly in the middle of the parking lot, blocking the traffic. The words appear on my phone screen and drown out the car horns.
-Bryan is gone. He hit a tree last night.
I had just shown my mom a video of him skating with his new team the night before. He had that nollie heelflip on lock. He used to joke about being sponsored by a skate shop, only to tell me later that he was just messing with me. But I knew that he wanted it to be true, and that he was good enough for it to happen someday. He had just gotten sponsored by Studio Skate Supply two weeks ago. How could he be gone right after that?
Not Bryan, the guy who always greeted me with a cheerful yell of my name from Spanish class, “Domingoooo!” then cocked his arm back past his head for our middle school handshake. Not Bryan, the one who knew I liked a girl at a party in seventh grade and dared her to kiss me because I was too nervous to make a move. Not Bryan, my friend who stayed up late and watched “Saw” with me, then kept me up until four in the morning asking,
“Could that ever actually happen?”
Over and over again.
I eat a chicken sandwich and waffle fries at Chic-fil-A with my friend Jordan and his dad after the SAT. Why doesn’t anything feel different? If Bryan were really gone, people wouldn’t be laughing and buying chocolate shakes. There’s no way I’d be having a mechanized conversation about college applications over lunch. Then the words light up on my phone screen and drown everything out again.
-We’re all meeting at Ellie’s. Come if you can.
I stop by my house to change. I tell my mom about the SAT, then about Bryan and I drop down into the black leather chair in our living room. She starts sobbing immediately and asks if I’m sure, not believing that it’s true. I wonder what’s wrong with me. My stomach and legs feel empty and thin, but I can’t cry. I drive to Ellie’s alone with no music playing.
When I get there, Ellie greets me with a feeble smile and a hug. I can tell she’s been crying by the red veins and puffy spots around her eyes. We climb the white carpeted stairs and I see a group of over 20 kids sitting, crying and hugging. I sit down on top of a wooden desk by a computer where an image of Ellie grabbing Bryan’s chin and smiling is already the screensaver. I try to let out the sadness but I can’t. I’m afraid that it doesn’t seem like I care. That I’m not as sad as everyone else. Then Ellie tells the story, her voice laden with rattling deep breaths as she struggles to remain composed.
“Bryan was going too fast down Ward Parkway,” she says. “He took his eyes off the road and hit a tree, and then his car swung into another tree. They think he was brain dead instantly.”
People all around break into gasping sobs. I see the twin football players Kris and Kevin Hertel bawling into their royal blue KU basketball T-shirts. I’ve never seen them cry, and the tears begin sliding down my face. Why did it have to be Bryan? His potential seemed limitless, he could have ridden that piece of plywood on aluminum and urethane until he was famous. People in the skateboard community were calling him “the next big thing out of KC.” And he had just gotten sponsored two weeks before.
Then the stories start.
“Remember when Bryan dressed up as Elvis for Halloween?”
“Or the time we played hot tub Olympics and filmed it? Bryan almost broke his leg jumping into that hot tub.”
“What about the time we played hide and seek and Bryan stayed hidden for so long that he crapped his pants?”
Through the tears and sadness everyone starts laughing. We start talking about a foundation to help kids get sponsored for skateboarding who really want and deserve it. We start planning a candle light vigil.
I look around the room and realize that the people here aren’t just from our grade, and most of them rarely see each other outside of school. There’s a senior with a stubbly black beard, a striped shirt filled with holes and a beanie next to the two twin football players. A preppy guy in a lime green Polo shirt is hugging Bryan’s best friend Adam the blues guitar player. I realize that’s the kind of kid Bryan was. Kind to everyone and always confident in himself. Fitting in everywhere.
As we all get up to leave after close to four hours of remembering I give Adam a hug, too. I tell him that I love him and we all walk back down the white-carpeted stairs. I get back into my car and the tears start flowing again. I’m glad that I can let it out, even though it’s still impossible to understand why Bryan had to leave us at age 17, and my grandpa remains confined to his wheelchair. I turn my car on and head towards home, this time with the music playing. The song is “Could You Be Loved” by Bob Marley. It reminds me of Bryan.