Today is my friend’s birthday. Was. It was his birthday. Or is it “is”? I just don’t know.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I befriended a freshman named John. He was on the swim team with me and we clicked instantly. We had little crushes, but after 4 days of the innocent hand-holding thing, we decided we were better as friends. We spent hours together. We’d share a lane at swim practice and walk for a bite to eat after school. When I started dating a football player my junior year, I’d go to every game and sit right next to the band so I could hang out with John while he played clarinet. He’d make me laugh with his Elmo voice and hear me out on my issues with other girls. He was my best friend. At the end of my junior year, John tried out for and won the drum major role for the next year. He was so ecstatic. He had such a love for music and had so many ideas for field formations and songs the band could learn.
On Labor Day my senior year, I was at home. We had friends over to swim. The phone rang, my friend Jamie told me to sit down. She told me John was gone. My heart broke then and there. He’d taken his own life, his mom had found him. The next days were a blur – the candlelight vigil, the wake, the funeral. On Thursday that week, our flex schedule should have crossed our paths between 2nd and 4th period on my way to pre-calculus. He didn’t greet me at the stairs. I burst into tears, and my friend Lisa led me to the grief counselor that had been brought in just for us.
To this day, I don’t know why he’s gone, but I still miss him when I think of him. I think his passing has impacted me so deeply because he was so young. We were so young. We were supposed to be happy and carefree. On the surface, he was. But deep down, there was a sadness I can’t begin to comprehend. I suspect what contributed to it. At his funeral, John’s mom said he’d made a mistake. I believe that – that he’d gotten caught up in some dark place and didn’t see another way out. I don’t think he truly wanted to leave.
His birthdays always touch my heart. He loved to celebrate birthdays, just as I do. He’d bring his friends balloon bouquets at school. As I’ve grown up, I’m often reminded of the things that John won't experience. He never got to drive the VW Bug he saved for for three years. He didn’t walk across the stage on our high school football field and graduate. He never had a college roommate or had to endure finals. He never fell in love. But with all he’ll miss, there is one thing he did do that brings a smile to my face. I’m thankful that he got to lead his beloved band as drum major for the first game of the season, 2 days before he left us.
I don’t like to think about his death, though that date is forever etched in my mind. I prefer to think of him on his birthday, and remember him as he was when he was happiest: blonde hair, blue eyes, a mouth full of braces, proudly wearing his fire red and white band uniform. It’s what he wore when he gave me the last hug, the last time I saw him. When he was laid to rest, his mom told us that when we saw a rainbow, it was a smile from above, a gift from John. I don’t believe it myself, but every year on March 4th, I’ve seen a rainbow. He’s the one giving gifts on his birthday. He was always so sweet like that.
So, my dear friend, Happy Birthday. You’ll always be in my heart and memories. And thank you for the rainbows.