This post also appeared on www.capecodonline.com/blogs in the opinion section of the Cape Cod Times, a division of Ottaway Newspapers, Inc.
Maybe I’m thinking of death because I’m sick and in a horrible mood. Or maybe it’s because for one reason or another I’m worried about every little thing these days. I’m not real sure. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the tough questions Will is going to ask in the not-so-distant future, and how woefully unprepared I am to answer them.
But above all the “What is sex?” and “Where do babies come from?” questions, there is one query which I’m naively hoping Will never asks. Because when he asks about death and why people die, I’m not sure how I’ll answer. Because I’m scared of dying and quite honestly, I’ve never really confronted it personally. Sure I’ve known people close to me who have died, but I’m pretty damned skilled at denial.
For instance, I have a vivid memory from when I was young, probably 7 or 8. I remember my little brother crying his eyes out because he had asked my parents about death, and they were frank with him. And then he put two and two together and asked if that meant he was going to die someday. They told him yes, but not for a very long time. And then it dawned on me that one day I would die. I’d stop breathing and I’d be dead. It was such a staggering thought that I completely ignored it. I went and played with my toys and never gave it a second thought. Even years later when my grandparents died I took it hard, but never really considered my own mortality.
I never really considered death seriously until I was in college. Actually, it was Sept. 20, 2000. I was coming home from a party — completely trashed — when a guy I knew came breathlessly running up to me with a panicked look on his face. I tried to brush him off, until he got right in my face and yelled “Felissa’s dead. She killed herself. What do we do?”
Felissa and I had been good friends since freshman year. She was beautiful, smart and kind of crazy in a wonderful way. She was completely high strung with a Type A personality, always studying hard for straight As to the point where we had to talk her off a few proverbial ledges every now and then. We’d torment her by stealing her favorite stuffed animal (I think it was called Sunny Bunny or something). We’d take pictures of that old thing tied up or hanging from a noose, and leave it for her. She’d stomp around and act mad, but eventually she’d smile again.
Soon after school started she began dating my good friend Joe, who fell completely in love with her. Although, truth be told, I had quite a crush on her myself. One of my fondest memories was going to Montreal with a bunch of people one spring break — Felissa included — and telling her I liked her when we were finally alone. Don’t worry, she had since broken up with my friend. She grabbed the front of my shirt and kissed me much to my surprise. We both knew it would never work out because friends can’t date their buddy’s serious ex-girlfriends. That’s as far as it went, but I’ll never forget that kiss.
But unfortunately, to call us friends at the time she died would be misleading. She had gone away to Florida for an internship for a semester and when she came back, she was different. All she could talk about was her fabulous life in Florida and how sad she was to be back in Massachusetts. It pissed me off because I felt like all of a sudden we weren’t good enough for her. So we stopped hanging out and not only that, I actually encouraged our other friends to cut her out of the loop because I was so irritated with her holier than thou attitude. As she slowly realized she was drifting apart from her friends, she decided to transfer to UMass-Boston and live with her parents in Dedham. At the time of her death, I hadn’t talked to her in months.
She was only 20 years old when she died. She drowned after swallowing a bottle full of pills and wading into the water at Wollaston Beach in Quincy. Some people thought it wasn’t suicide but they didn’t know Felissa. She was a lifeguard, and perhaps the strongest swimmer I had ever met. In my mind, her message was crystal clear.
The guy who stopped me on the street and told me about her death was falling apart. He had been dating her and had fallen for her pretty hard. He also hadn’t told anyone else and he was begging me for help. Remembering that she was Jewish, I knew that it’s tradition to bury the body almost immediately. So first I found out the funeral was the following day, meaning we had 12 hours to get our act together. From there, I went around campus finding her old friends. I went to three different parties and two bars. And each time I had to break the news like I was the grim reaper.
When I was finally done, there was still one more task. I had to call Joe, my friend who fell in love with her, and tell him the news. He had transferred to SUNY Oswego in New York after they broke up but I didn’t have his new number, and not everyone had cell phones at this point. So first I had to wake up his parents but even they didn’t have his number. They had a number of a girl he was friends with. So then I called her and woke her up until I finally got Joe’s number. And Joe didn’t have a license or a car, so in the middle of the night I drove to get him and we just made it back in time for her funeral.
It was horribly sad, especially the part where friends and family take turns shoveling some dirt on the grave. But the worst was going back to her family’s house. All of Felissa’s friends gathered in her bedroom. One of her towels was hanging from her door, still wet. And that’s when it hit me that she was gone. Gone at 20 and there was no good reason for her to be dead. I was just angry and frustrated and confused.
And now, almost eight years to the day later, I’m still angry and more than a little confused. Felissa should be living somewhere in the greater Boston area right now. She’d be married, with a good job and she’d probably be a parent too.
Now that I’m a parent with a child who will no doubt ask me about death in a few years, I have no idea what to say. How can I explain it to him when I don’t have answers myself? How can I tell him not to be afraid of it when I’m petrified? How do I explain why wonderful people like Felissa decide to end their own lives, when I was left with no explanation myself?
It’s times like these I question whether I’m cut out for this Dad stuff in the long run. It’s easy when they can’t talk, form opinions or ask questions but I can only imagine how tough it gets in the future.
I guess in some ways I still feel like a little kid demanding answers to these questions too.