Synonyms: youth, boyhood, girlhood
So much of my childhood was following you and your friends around your neighborhood on a borrowed bike, sweat on my forehead and scabs on my knees. We’d slosh through creeks in the woods, muddying our sneakers. We’d climb the orange dirt hill at the little league field and chew giant wads of pink bubblegum. We’d play capture the flag as the sun set, finally breaking the heat.
I was always the only girl.
“Chris, who’s that?” one of your friends would ask.
“My cousin, Jackie,” you’d say quickly, avoiding the subject. “Now come on, let’s go.”
You had to be cool. You never seemed proud. But I was.
Synonyms: commonplace, bland
I’ve been to so many funerals I’ve lost count. Each funeral home always smells the same, looks the same. Perhaps they are made to be overwhelmingly plain as to dull the senses of the grieving attendees. The carpet is faded from the dragging of heavy dress shoes. The backs of the old wooden chairs are worn. Every service is eerily similar.
Except for yours of course. I should have known it would be different; you were my first best friend.
Synonyms: wimp, chicken
You never let me take my glasses off at night. You never wanted me to fall asleep before you did.
Synonyms: end of life, eternal rest
We had just finished eating dinner when we got the call.
My parents and sister were over. I scraped pasta with meat sauce off the dishes and rinsed them in the sink.
My dad got up from the table to put together a new nightstand I had asked him to help with. Just as he started separating screws, his phone rang. He answered it and immediately handed it to my mom, panic on his face. I sat down next to her on the couch. The phone’s volume was so loud, I heard it myself.
“Chris is dead.”
Just like that, I was empty.
Synonyms: praise, pay tribute to
I am confident now that I could teach a class on how to completely remove one’s self from the reality of a situation in order to give a speech to a room full of crying people.
Synonyms: deteriorate, slip
One time, you came back from rehab having checked yourself out again, and asked to stay at my parents’. It was before the heroin. You were doing lesser drugs then, or maybe they were equal and you just hadn’t done enough yet. I was still living at home, the bunk bed with the futon on the bottom still took up half of my tiny bedroom.
I lay still on the futon as you tossed and turned endlessly on the top bunk, its metal frame squeaking above me. We talked until the middle of the night, about anything, about nothing at all. I knew you were safe there and I think you did too. I think you wanted so badly to be safe, to not be tempted.
I was in college and still hanging out with the same group of friends every night. I went out with them that weekend when I could have been spending time with you. We could have played video games together like we used to. We could have thrown a football around the yard. But I went out and at the end of the weekend, you went home.
It’s things like these that make it impossible to believe people when they say “there’s nothing you could have done.”
Synonyms: direct, lead, influence
Our grandparents used to call us Frick and Frack because we were always together. We were the same age. We were lookalikes.
But we were so opposite: you—impulsive and careless, me—logical and meticulous. When we were little, I tried to control your every move. You were loud, rambunctious even, but each time the pre-school teacher taught us a new dance, you’d turn red and refuse to follow her directions. So I’d get behind you and puppeteer your arms.
When I watch us in that classroom on our old home video tapes, four-year-old me smiling as I boss you around, I wish I never stopped trying to keep you on track.
Synonyms: unfortunate, ill-fated, doomed
You were so high the time I ran into you at the mall, you didn’t even recognize me.
Synonyms: bullying, threatening
There was a certain sense of toughness you always wanted to show, like you had something to prove.
You punched me in the face once. We were under a blanket with the rest of our cousins watching Stuart Little. It was New Year’s Eve or maybe it was Thanksgiving. We couldn’t have been older than eight. We were sharing secrets in our own, makeshift fort held up by our bony knees. When the movie ended, we took the blanket off and started rough housing. I punched you in the arm.
“That didn’t even hurt,” you said, taunting me. “You don’t even punch hard.”
“Neither do you.”
“Yes I do.”
“Punch me then. Go ahead.” I practically begged you.
Your knuckles met my cheek bone and instantly, I began to cry. I ran downstairs to tell on you, breaking a sacred bond out of humiliation.
Synonyms: discordant, harsh
Your brother found you lying there, a needle still in your arm, blood on your face—you must’ve hit your cheek or your nose on the night stand as you fell.
Afterward, he picked up the bottle and couldn’t put it down for another two years.
Synonyms: memento, relic
When your funeral was over, your mom gave me the “cousin” flowers—the arrangement from all of us to you. It felt wrong, like taking back a gift after it had already been given. Nevertheless, I brought them home and set them on the kitchen table. They stayed there for months, browning and drooping. The petals turned crisp, crackling at the touch. I ate breakfast with them each morning and felt guilty as I turned the kitchen lights off every night before bed. Whenever we had guests, I’d take the dead flowers into the spare room and place them on my desk, to hide them, to avoid answering questions about how long they’d been there. To throw them away was to throw away a final piece of you.
When I finally did, I held my breath and dumped them into a half full trash bag, carrying it outside immediately. Before I threw it in the garbage can, I reached in and grabbed two of the dead roses and the banner that read “cousin.” I’ve kept them hidden on a shelf on my desk in the spare room ever since.
Synonyms: absurd, comical
My mom has two favorite stories to tell about you. They make her laugh a real kind of laugh where she doubles over and clutches her stomach.
One is of the time my dad made you breakfast.
“Uncle Joe, these eggs are nasty!” you complained.
You said the home fries looked like Poppy’s toenails and to make it look like you cleared your plate, you dumped them into the toilet and flushed them down.
The other is of the time you insisted on taking a bath in my parents’ Jacuzzi tub. You lay floating in the water with your bathing suit on and bubbles clinging to your legs.
“Read me a story,” you said. And I sat there on a stool, a book propped open on my lap.
We were fourteen.
Synonyms: pity, grace
“So it’s a full time job?” you asked. I had just started teaching high school English. “How much do you make? Like what’s your salary?”
I answered honestly.
“Holy shit, you could do so much with that.” Shock covered every inch of your face. You had never worked a part-time job, let alone a salaried one, so any amount of money seemed like a million bucks. We sat across from each other on separate recliners in Mom-mom and Pop-pop’s living room. Your eyes were wide open, fixated on nothing at all. “I gotta get my life together, Jackie. I really do.”
Synonyms: contradict, undo
You only asked me for money to buy drugs once. Said you’d have another seizure without them. I lied to you and told you I was busy, told you I couldn’t get it to you right then. You posted something online about how someone you would do anything for, wouldn’t do something simple for you. It was like you had flattered me and broken my heart all in one sentence.
Synonyms: discarded, out-of-date
I can’t help it that each time I ride the Patco now, I half expect to see your ghost. Those god-awful yellow and puke-green worn, faux leather seats are gone now—the ones that smelled like vomit on the weekends. They’ve been replaced with fresher, grayish blue seats—more modern-looking.
All those times you took the train to Camden, alone, to score a baggie—you had to have been scared. Hell, you wouldn’t even go up in the attic at Mom-mom and Pop-pop’s alone until you were twenty-two and practically homeless.
Sometimes as the speed line rocks me back and forth on my way home from therapy in the city, I wish it never existed. Maybe then it would’ve been more difficult for you to get high, more difficult for you to die. But who am I kidding, you would’ve found a way.
Synonyms: penalty, discipline
The local newspaper released an article on the largest Fentanyl bust the police have ever made in New Jersey. Plastered right there on the center of the page: the face of the man arrested for having “enough Fentanyl to wipe out half the population of the state.” Upon reading it the first time, an overwhelming feeling of rage went surging through my body. I wanted to grip that man up by his throat and ask him if he knew that his life sentence was a privilege, ask him how much went into the batch that went out that November, ask him how it felt to feed his family by killing mine.
I have read the article a hundred times and I still can’t figure out if it helps or hurts to blame someone other than you.
Synonyms: anxiety, unease
The kind of horror movies I like now are the kind we watched in the living room with the furniture rearranged and giant bowls of popcorn in our laps. Children of the Corn, The Sixth Sense, The Ring. The kind that made you cover half your face with a blanket, as I casually checked over my shoulder for ghosts during the quiet parts. The kind that kept us up all night afraid of the silence.
The kind that could be forgotten about first thing the next morning when we made toast and circled our favorite teams on the football pool.
Synonyms: dream, fantasy
I kept a running note in my phone of every dream I had about you after you died, beginning with the night of. I dreamt we were lying next to each other when I realized your body was cold and stiff. I could feel your skin, I could feel the visceral panic in my chest. A nightmare had never felt more real. I screamed and cried and with everything in me, I tried to bring you back to life. When it didn’t work, I woke up shaking.
I had dreams of you once a week after that. I’d wake in the middle of the night and reach for my phone, half asleep, to jot down a couple words that would remind me what I saw with my eyes closed.
It wasn’t until that June that a student did a research presentation on lucid dreaming and the importance of recording your dreams in order to have them again. I suppose it was an instinct.
Synonyms: fortunate, timely
The happiest memory I have of us, perhaps one of the happiest of my entire life, is the one Christmas Eve it actually snowed. Snow isn’t hard to come by in a Jersey winter, but we always hoped for glistening flakes to fall on our favorite night of the year.
It was around midnight. Our parents’ eyes were glossy—a twinkle not too far off from the anticipation in ours.
“It’s snowing!” someone shouted.
We tore through the front door of Mom-mom and Pop-pop’s and onto to the lawn, our arms halfway in our coats. You stood with your mouth agape and your tongue out trying to catch the snowflakes.
It was like a miracle, a special gift just for us, an alternate universe where everything seemed so much more beautiful.
“I have an idea!” my mom said.
She went inside and got the empty pizza boxes from earlier in the night. We used them as sleds and slid down the little hill on the side of the house laughing until we couldn’t catch our breath.
Synonyms: ritual, habit
It’s incredible, really, how certain I was you were going to walk through the front door on Christmas Eve a month after you died and yell out my name with a smile on your face.
Synonyms: helpless, incapable, powerless
A strange thing about grief is the overwhelming need to make people understand that you’re not just being dramatic, that you had an important relationship with the person who is no longer living. I couldn’t help but feel like people were whispering about me behind my back. About how it had been weeks and I still wasn’t able to eat or laugh or fully focus. About how I just don’t handle loss well.
A stranger thing about grief is that even though everyone experiences it at one point or another, no one ever fully understands, and they never will.
Synonyms: justification, defense
We come from a long family history of addiction. I was stupid to think we could avoid it.
It’s far up the family tree, I thought.
But you watched people drink beer like it was water and you idolized rappers who were always sipping cough syrup and divorce can do a lot to a teenager’s psyche, everybody knows that.
So you found a way to cope. Or a way to avoid coping.
Synonyms: entire, complete, full
Without you, I would have never been me.
Synonyms: inside look
It happens in pangs.
I swear that if I took myself to a doctor and asked them to look at my insides, they would find tiny pangs of pain floating through my body, each one a subtle reminder you’re gone.
People say it comes and goes in waves, but for me it’s pangs. They have spread through muscle and bone and blood like a disease.
Synonyms: desire strongly, ache
At family parties now, we get ready to have cake and someone says, “Is everyone here?”
“Yup,” someone else answers.
And I wish that were true, but someone is always missing.
At midnight on my twenty-fifth birthday, I sat down on a street corner in Philadelphia as my friends began to sing to me.
There I was, surrounded by the people who had held my hand as I made it through a year of hell, the people I love most. I smiled, laughed even. Though I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of guilt knowing you’d never get a twenty-fifth birthday, or any other birthday for that matter. Suddenly I felt the urge to disappear, to evaporate into thin air. I wanted to crawl back into myself. To count backwards from twenty-five until I no longer existed, until none of it had ever happened.