Appreciate Those You Love and Keep Them Close

I still remember that night like it was yesterday.
The Sacred Heart Players, my high school’s drama club, had just wrapped up our performance of “Our Town,” and we were all gearing up for Thanksgiving break. We had our last show on Sunday, broke set on Monday and had pep rally Wednesday before being sent off to indulge in some turkey, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes.
Tuesday night. I was picking out my clothes for the next day. My school’s colors were green and yellow, to match our team name, “The Irish.” I heard the phone ring from the living room as the caller ID flashed across the television screen. It was my drama teacher.
Since the show had just ended, there was no reason to believe she would be calling to deliver bad news, but it just didn’t feel right. When I saw her number calling my home phone, I felt my stomach twist into knots.
I called and heard my director, Ms. DiGennaro’s voice on the other line.
“Rob, can you please put your mom on the phone?” she asked.
I handed the phone off to my mom and retreated to my room, anxiously waiting for her to hang up and tell me what was going on.
I grabbed my phone and a message lit up the screen. It was my friend Matt who I had known since I was 4-years-old.
“John is dead,” the message read.
The phone fell out of my hands and I ran into my living room. My mom was still on the phone, and she was in utter disbelief.
“It’s not true, is it?” I asked her.
She nodded her head yes and came over to hug me. I burst into tears. I couldn’t even fathom that someone I had just seen in school earlier that day and acted with the last year after knowing him since I was 8-years-old was gone. Just like that.
When you’re 15, losing a close friend is hard. At any age it is, but when it’s tragic and someone has only been on the earth for such a short amount of time, it is even more magnified.
The next day was even more difficult. My high school was really small. There were about 400 people total between grades 9-12. Even if you didn’t know someone personally, you saw them walking the halls or at lunch and likely knew their name.
In what was normally a warm and inviting environment, my school turned frigid and cold. When I walked in the front door, my assistant principal saw me and told me to go upstairs to the library where the rest of the Sacred Heart Players were.
The entire cast of “Our Town,” were holding each other and crying. I couldn’t break. Not today. If someone had to remain strong, it was going to be me. No matter how awful I felt inside, my friends needed me.
Obviously, the pep rally was canceled that day. Our school had a food drive in the weeks leading up to the rally, which were delivered to the respective places they were intended and slowly over the next few hours, all the students left.
Me, Matt, our friend Steven who I’ve known my whole life, and our friends Tori and Dan went back to Tori’s house and tried to make sense of what happened. We reminisced about the fond memories our friend had left us, but it was hard. It was just really hard.
Thanksgiving that year was a blur. John’s wake was shortly after that, followed by his funeral. That’s where I lost it. The eulogy coupled with the church hymns as the casket was walked past the pews was devastating.
The rest of the school year was just me going through the motions. My mind was constantly filled with thoughts of my friend and everything else came second. We had our musical in the spring, but it was hard to be invested. John’s presence lit up the stage and with such a big part of our crew missing, it took a toll on me.
John was a one of a kind person. He had an infectious smile and laugh that would light up a room. He was giving, caring and intelligent. That’s what makes it so tough. You always wonder if there was something you could have done differently, or said or noticed to help prevent it from happening.
After our last performance the Sunday before he died, my mom drove him home, about 15 minutes from my high school. I didn’t think anything of it, because why would I? This would be the last time I talked to John. I remember him departing from our car and thanking us so genuinely for giving him a ride home. It was a testament to the kind of person he was.
This past November marked seven years since John left us. Not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about him. While you do recover over time, you don’t come out of situations like that as the same person.
This loss made me appreciate my friends and family more and just reinforced how precious life is. Give your friends and family a hug and remind them how important they are to you. It doesn’t take much to let your loved ones know you care about them.
Rest in Peace, John. You’re forever close to my heart.