The Kansas City Chiefs were crushing the New England Patriots, which – as Buffalo Bills fans – gave Ben and I an unexplainable feeling of contentment. I’d known Ben since I was just a few months old, and now he was my college roommate. I don’t think we fully recognized how extraordinary our friendship was; if it were fifteen years ago on this same Sunday night, we would have been doing the exact same thing. Still, I had homework to do, midterms to study for. I had just left another night of work. I didn’t have the time to reminisce and appreciate the importance of that time, that moment, in my life, or at least I didn’t feel like I did.
Suddenly, my phone began vibrating nonstop. The noise startled me. Our friend Ryan texted me, asking if I’d heard what had happened. Was he talking about the football game? God, how I wish he was.
About 40 minutes outside of Syracuse, in Oswego, New York, a FedEx truck had swerved into oncoming traffic and crashed into a smaller vehicle, sending it into a small body of water. The FedEx driver died immediately, as did the young mom driving the smaller car. The mom’s daughter suffered a broken neck, but was pulled out of the water with a pulse, in critical condition. Her name was Elizabeth Tully, but we knew her as Liz, little Liz, Lizard. She was airlifted to Upstate Hospital, here in Syracuse.
As I tried to allow the news I had just heard to settle in, the football announcers’ voices – which had been blaring out of the television – faded out. I grew unaware of my surroundings. Memories of Liz were fresh in my brain, dominating the then and now.
I’d met Liz in the seventh grade, when I was introduced to her by Alex, a friend that, by this time, was essentially family. I thought about the ambiance Liz generated around her. I thought about how small she was, but what a profound presence she harbored. Liz reminded me of a pocket watch: Beautiful on the outside, with a ticking-clock on the inside, which you could never fully understand at a mere glance. Alex, her friends and her family were the chain that held her up, although she absolutely shined on her own. Even before the accident, I always felt as though Liz embodied the idea of appreciating time, rather than simply knowing it.
In eighth grade, on a Friday evening, I heard a knock on my door. There was Liz. I’d told her and Alex that I would think about coming to their winter dance. Despite any attempt to make it appear differently, I was shy and yet to grow into myself – dances were not my thing. Nonetheless, she and Alex took a detour, stopping at my house to give me one more chance.
How I wish I’d gone. I didn’t know how to dance. There was a Syracuse basketball game on. I stayed home and watched it. Still, at an age where it was nice to know you had a friend – there was Liz. There was Alex.
My memories of Liz on that college Sunday were replaced by terrible realities, bringing me back to the present, until I could hear the announcers’ voices again.
My first call was to a friend, Dave, or Sleez, as we called him, albeit I have no clue where that nickname originated. Sleez was likely the most similar to me, out of all of my friends. He had dated Liz, whom he’d met through Alex. He’d always felt guilty for letting the relationship drift. He loved her, but he, in the same way as me, thinks too much. It gets in the way.
Away at school, he wanted to know when he should head back – there was no question that he would be around, in anyway that anyone needed him to be, despite the pain that he himself was feeling. “I’d stay off the roads tonight”, I told him, not yet fully understanding the severity of the situation. When you’re in college and amongst friends, time, in its truest sense, is not something you’re used to thinking about.
I felt restless as the night went on. I wanted to be of help, but I didn’t have the answers to the questions that I was being asked by friends, family, even exes – all of whom were displaying their presence, if I needed it.
What I needed was to calm down. I stopped at a corner grocery store and bought a pack of cigarettes. I cracked my front window and smoked one in the car. It was a nice night out; the air was cool. I didn’t feel calm at all, not the way cigarettes are supposedly meant to make you feel, according to all those old commercials.
What the fuck was I doing? I never smoked cigarettes.
Throughout the night, different friends would stop by my house – Krissy, Dave Holbrook. So often when we were all together, laughter filled the room. Tonight, we all felt lost, a feeling that we’d rarely confronted. The familiar faces that popped up at my door and in my memories kept me sane, or at least collected.
As sunrise approached, I left to pick up Alex and our friend Lauren from the hospital and brought them to their houses, in the neighborhood that we had grown up in. We passed the five-cornered intersection at the top of my street, where the two of them would open lemonade stands when we were younger. I thought about how I’d ride my bike up and hang out close enough to the stand so that I could enjoy their company, but far enough that my male friends could not see any trace of real involvement.
Tonight, I was driving a car, not a bike. Alex and Lauren looked out the windows, mostly silent. We had real jobs now. We had college classes. Liz was fighting for her life. How could I have let so much time go by, without fully appreciating it?
My heart felt heavy as Alex and Lauren got out of the car. Lauren’s mom was suffering from terminal cancer, with no guarantee of how much time was left. Alex held a special place in my heart as my closest female friend; it made me want to protect her, and seeing all that Alex and Lauren had to deal with made the pit of my stomach hurt.
I didn’t sleep that night. I couldn’t. Memories of better times were at war with harsh realities. A prayer vigil would be held for Liz – and in memory of her mother – soon, and I hoped it would bring me ease.
In many ways, it did.
Alex opened by reciting Mary Stevenson’s “Footprints in the Sand,” which describes the thoughts of someone questioning whether God was truly by their side, citing only one set of footprints in the sand – their own – as evidence that he was not. The poem ends with God responding, “The times when you have seen only one set of foot prints in the sand, I was carrying you.”
While listening to every word, I looked into the flame of a small candle I was holding, which swayed back and forth with the breeze. I wasn’t at all religious. In many ways I was far more pragmatic than I was spiritual, yet I still felt somewhat obliged to pray. It’s not so much that I don’t believe in something greater, it’s just that it’s always been easier for me to appreciate the everyday type of miracles, performed by doctors and teachers. Yet, I wanted so badly to realize – right then – that I’d been wrong to doubt all along, and that there is a God, who would be able to carry and navigate Liz through these tough stretches of sand.
“Great choice, Al”, I whispered to myself, allowing the words of the poem to sink in. I looked up from the flame and caught eye contact with her. I nodded my head, a small gesture that held a large magnitude of intent; I’m here, I’m with you. Despite her muddied eyeliner, which trickled down her face, Alex looked beautiful. She wore a light green dress, with a black coat that blocked the cool fall breeze. Her makeup, along with any feeling of childhood in our personalities, trickled away with the tears of that day.
At that moment, I’d never felt so far removed from my childhood, a time when I dreamed of taking an impossible journey, where I’d be the hero of some profound battle. I ate that kind of stuff up. My dad would read the Lord of the Rings books to me as I fell asleep. When the story was finished, I sobbed on the hardwood floor that separated my room from his, so sorry was I for the tale to be done. In the end, men corrupted by the world had found light in the darkest of places. I remember being devastated by the deaths of characters in these books. They’d become such a part of my journey, and I felt as though I’d become a part of theirs. When they died, they were just gone – gone from the book, gone from our journey. In a sense, this was how I came to understand death; the characters’ names disappeared from the text, and they were no longer there as I lay down my head.
A few years would go by, and – like the characters that had fallen – my desire to journey off and conquer evil faded into memories of what was. I was no longer reading about the great battles of Middle Earth; at a young age, much to my parents’ concern, I was now watching CNN’s coverage of war in the Middle East. Later, as the United States entrenched itself further in Iraq, I can vividly remember, as a 12-year-old, questioning why so many young men had to die.
The noble battles that I’d once so desperately wanted to fight were not, it seemed, meant to be fought in Iraq. By this time, I was far more comfortable staying at home, where everything was safe, and where no characters could go missing from my story.
Now I was 20, and I was lying on my parent’s couch when I received the news. I dug my face into a pillow, weeping far worse than I had in that very house, some thirteen years ago, when my dad stopped reading the books. I use this comparison not to make light of the situation, but instead because of the power those stories held – and hold – in my life. Throughout Liz’s life, any malicious temptation had fallen victim to her formidably strong character. I’d witnessed her show compassion to those who did not show it in return. I’d seen her deny the advances of someone who loved her romantically; she did so just gently enough to avoid breaking his heart. Her character was not of this world; it was a product of something greater, something I do not expect to witness again.
Her body was of this world, though, and unlike her character, it could be broken. Liz had died, just a few days after the vigil. As I lay face down, I felt a hand lightly press down on my back. I didn’t look up. I knew who it was. My dad did not move his hand for what felt like an hour. My mom came into the room, sitting silently on an adjacent chair. In these situations, presence can harbor far more meaning than words ever could.
That day, my parents had planned on traveling to Rochester for a family party. I finally convinced them that they should go; their presence had been felt, and it was appreciated, but I wanted to be alone – at least in a way.
I decided I’d take my Australian Shepherd, Luna, for a walk. There’s nothing more beautiful than the loyalty of such a dog, which is only capable of being displayed through action, rather than word. She climbed onto the passenger seat of my parents’ ancient minivan; she’d sit there, amazingly still for the quick ride to the parking lot of my old high school, where the daytime chaos of an inner-city school meets the evening solitude of the trails of Elmwood Park. My dad had left his favorite CD playing in the car; the voice of Marisa Mulder, a product of Syracuse turned big-time Cabaret singer, quietly spilled out of the van’s speakers. It was beautiful. She was singing Tom Waite’s “Day After Tomorrow,” which describes a young man’s experience in World War II, and his exceedingly aching hunger to return home to Illinois. In many ways, it’s a depressing song, but for some reason I was completely drawn to it. It was always playing, yet this was the first time I’d ever really listened to it. As I pulled into the parking lot, I heard a verse of the song that will forever alter my understanding of loss.
“And the summer,” she sang, “it too will fade – and with it brings the winter’s frost, dear. And I know, that we too are made, of all the things that we have lost here.”
Liz would never again stand before us; her name would never again be etched into the physical text of our story. Still, the important role that she’d played could not be erased from earlier chapters, and it will forever play a role in the decisions and journeys for those of us who held her dear. In that sense, Liz is eternal. In that sense, Liz is, always has been, and always will be – the hero of this story.
A Follow Up: Presence, Reflection and Change. Sunday, June 5th, 2016
The Cleveland Cavaliers are tied with the Golden State Warriors, with about three minutes left in the first quarter. I’ve pledged my loyalty to the Cavs for this NBA Finals, due to a few ironic factors have combined to leave me with a soft spot for the city of Cleveland. It’s a city that sits at the foot of Lake Erie – a body of water that stretches across state lines, all the way to Buffalo, the origin of my family’s industrial American roots.
A few years ago, on my birthday, the outreach of love that I was getting from friends on the internet came to a screeching halt, as everyone’s attention pivoted to LeBron James. His infamous “I’m Coming Home” letter was published on that day, which proclaimed that he’d be returning to his home state to play for Cleveland, the team that had drafted him as a kid. I joked that he was stealing my shine, and my friends called it “Li-Bron Day.”
In truth, I saw it as a gift. The loyalty LeBron displayed on that day is something that my friends and I can appreciate; such loyalty is present in this room, at this moment, as I write this. I’m watching the game with life-long friends, in an apartment in the neighborhood that many us grew up in. Sleez and Ryan – and most of the usual suspects – are here; those that aren’t, are not far.
Ben, who was with me when I received the tragic news about Liz’s accident, has just walked in, right as Golden State is starting to pull away. More so than just about anyone, he’s symbolic of a foundation of presence that exists in my life. My parents moved next door to his when we were both in diapers. While roommates at Syracuse, Ben talked me into taking a writing class on non-fiction story telling; in it, we were given the assignment that persuaded me to write the story above about Liz. Ben even edited it, so – ironically – his presence exists in this document, beyond my mere mentioning him as a character.
From diapers to the real world and from the Kansas City blow out to tonight’s Golden State blow out, there was Ben.
Despite such presence, this week has been a reminder of loss, too. Liz would have celebrated her 22nd birthday yesterday. Simply put, she was a great person; for that reason, the hurt felt by many of her closest friends has not evaporated in accordance with time. In a sense, such hurt is a reminder of her presence; it’s a reminder of what she meant to everyone she came into contact with.
Close to two years ago, the way in which those same friends handled such a profoundly difficult experience reminds me of Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage:
“Grace under pressure.”
As of late, I feel as though I’ve been especially lacking in such grace. I wrote before that Liz reminded me of a pocket watch, because she embodied the idea of appreciating time, rather than simply knowing it. Today, that rings just as true to me as it did when I wrote it. Yet, in being true to myself, I haven’t followed her example, in the way that I know I should have been.
Here’s what I mean: For too long, I’ve been stressed over things that are out of my control. It’s becoming more apparent that I’ve – at least in some way – inherited a muscular condition, which makes certain things I love to do a little bit tougher to do. Too often, partying has been my answer for discomfort, or a stressful week of work and school, resulting in mornings dominated by hangovers and occasional nights of lost opportunity, and even relationships. I’ve been hurrying towards nothing in particular for a while, instead of appreciating this moment in time and the people around me now.
That will no longer be the case. I woke up this morning and thought of Liz and her birthday; I thought of what she stood for, and who she was. I thought of all of the things that I want to do in this world, especially for the people I care about and for the people who too often go unheard. I’ve decided to make some changes in my life, starting today – Many of these changes can be traced back to lessons that I learned from Liz.
It’s been almost two years since her passing, but today, when I needed a push in the right direction, there was Liz.
“Liz would never again stand before us; her name would never again be etched into the physical text of our story. Still, the important role that she’d played could not be erased from earlier chapters, and it will forever play a role in the decisions and journeys for those of us who held her dear. In that sense, Liz is eternal. In that sense, Liz is, always has been, and always will be – the hero of this story.”