When you’re younger, if you’re lucky, you don’t have to think a lot about loss. At least not in any way that expands beyond an Under Five soccer game, or the video games you’re certain your brother is always cheating in, because how can anyone win that much?
When you’re younger, and loss comes, it hits you in abrupt ways. The absence is so obvious the grieving becomes that way as well. Because, when you’re younger, the people in your life—the ones you don’t think about losing, but sometimes end up losing anyway—are always there. You haven’t yet grown or expanded or travelled the world. You haven’t known people, then left people behind. You haven’t spread far and wide, making connections everywhere you go. Everyone you know is around you. The way they’ve always been. There are brothers, sisters, pet hamsters. Mom, Dad. There are the friends up the street, friends on the bus, friends in your first grade class. There are teachers, EAs, chaperones on class trips and first dates. Everyone you know is around you. Except for maybe the great grandmother who you visit only on Christmas and Easter.
If you lose these constants, you feel it. You see it. And it stings in a way that is hard to forget because they’re no longer there. Not in the way you were used to. Not in a way at all.
When you’re younger, loss hits you in abrupt ways. Life startling ways. To lose a classmate is an empty desk, a quieter room, a loss for always. To lose a Nana is fewer homemade biscuits, it’s a silenced “Come in! Come in!” it’s memories you never got the chance to make.
You stop saying forever, because the idea of forever is suddenly so frightening. You begin to hate goodbyes, even if your mom’s just heading out for a meeting. You don’t like to go upstairs first at night, because you’re afraid of alone.
When you’re younger, you fall a lot. You’re clumsy and fitting into your skin, and growth spurts keep you up at night. You fall a lot. And you feel the pain. Because it’s there. Your skin is marked, maybe torn, it’s red and sometimes blue. And you cry, because it hurts and the pain is there—visible to the eye—so why wouldn’t you cry?
When you’re older, you learn about a new type of pain. You can’t always see it, and you learn about concealer and cover up so that helps to make your skin always clean, but still, you can feel it. You learn about the type of pain that doesn’t scratch you up, and it hurts more inside, and sometimes it’s so deep and hidden, you wonder if it’s even there.
When you’re older, you learn about a new type of pain. But it’s not because you’re clumsy and trying to fit into your skin. Instead, you’re trying to fit into your life, create your life. Because when you’re older, you’re still growing. In a new type of way. You’re big now, so the world seems too small. So you move away, you travel, you learn new things, and you feel smart when you have on a blazer and high heels. You feel old when you talk about the state of the Middle East and the fate of Apple Inc. You meet new people, and you learn how to love them, and you find you still don’t like some, like maybe they never outgrew cooties.
You get older. And the world is big now, and you feel so small.
You know so many people, but you’re always wondering about who knows the real you.
When you’re older, if you’re lucky, you don’t have to think a lot about loss. Instead, you just feel it.
It’s no longer abrupt, obvious, or scraping at your skin. But like you’ve been tossed around, thrown up and down, and the puzzle inside you is a mess, as you try to figure out where everything belongs.
When you’re older, if you’re lucky, you don’t have to think a lot about loss.
As it turns out, none of us are that lucky.
And so, we start to think about loss, and losing, and loving.
We crave summer, wish the warmth closer, but dread how quickly the years pass. Because we’re growing older. And the people we love—the once constants in our lives, the still constants in our lives—grow older, too.
Your days aren’t spent surrounded by the same group of people and you no longer visit a great grandmother on Christmas or Easter.
You start to say forever again, because the idea that things can’t last is too frightening. You stop hating goodbyes, because you’ve stopped saying goodbyes, because you can’t believe that it could be for the last time.
You’re upstairs first at night, and still, you’re afraid of alone.
I remember the first long weekend I came home my freshman year of college. I’d been missing home, my high school, the way things were, and so I returned. For the weekend. And I drove around town, looking for indicators of things that were still the same. I didn’t find many.
But I drove to my high school that Friday afternoon to fetch my mom from work, and I waited in the pick-up line outside the band room door. And it hadn’t changed. A black bag hung in the window. And I knew on hot summer days it would be propped open again, maybe with a trombone case.
I knew inside, strangers, friends, classmates, they were coming together—differences aside—to make something that sounded alike, melodic.
It sounded like music.
It would always sound like music.
And my mom came out the door, got in the car, we drove home, I flew away again. And even on the loneliest of days, the most changing of days, I grew comfort in knowing not everything changes.
Some things stay the same.
This past week, the man behind the baton passed away. And as I talked with one of my best friends from high school and now, we reminisced about our days spent in the large room with the vaulted ceilings and a futon couch. We talked about the early mornings in that room when we didn’t want to be awake, let alone make music. We talked about the afternoon practices. Or the med tech class we took in there. We talked about the trips we went on. The adventures we found in new places. The long drives, the fun drives. The musical solace that was always in between. We talked about the uncontained laughter and we talked about him. We talked about the middle of the day breaks. The recesses when we hid away. When we were tired, or behind on homework, or wanting a pause from all the same faces.
We talked about it all. Mostly, about how he was always there. How we knew he’d always be there. The sadness was palpable, even through the screens we were chatting on.
When you’re older, you feel loss in a new way. No longer surrounded by the same people everyday, it’s not such a startling absence. And it doesn’t feel so obvious. There’s no everyday reminder of walking into an empty room with a silenced “hello.”
It doesn’t hit like a slap in the face.
Yet somehow, it stings all the same.
There won’t be an everyday absence reminder for me. But there’s still an everyday absence reminder for someone. A lot of someones. A vaulted room full of students with tired eyes and too-wise mouths. They’re trying to make something of themselves, already at seventeen. And they’ll push and shove, and lose themselves within themselves, and they’ll try to do it all alone.
And I remember the days when that was me. And a man at the front held a baton high, and somehow, that pulled us all together. Somehow, the raise of the arm joined us, united us. And somehow, melodies were made.
We were independent kids on the verge of it all, and we wanted nothing more than to have it all.
So we branched out far and wide, and we made our own lives. We travelled, we grew, we bought shiny black shoes. And everything changed. We distanced ourselves from the lives we knew, and we built new lives in homes with glass walls.
Occasionally, coming home, we’d drive by the old building with walls finally clear of mold, and as everything changed, we grew comfort in knowing someone didn’t. Behind the door with the black bag flapping from the window, there was a man inside. And with a baton held high, he was still bringing kids together, the same way he had once down for us.
This time, dressed in black, we come home again. And we think about loss now the way old people tend to. And we gather and bow our heads. Once strangers, maybe strangers again. And we drive by the old building and our heads fall lower, because something’s changed again, and it stings all the same.