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First experiences with death

Road trips are always interesting for conversations. On our way (to burn and pillage! An unsuspecting English village!) to Chico for the Disco Calientes tournament this weekend, Mark, Heidi, Kris and I managed to talk about everything from the Wicked musical (we listened to the whole soundtrack, talking about Pop!-u-lar!), to Mark's grandfather shooting off his bid toe when he was 7, to Alaskan salmon runs, to friends that died and the first deaths we experienced.

Kris' first loss was in high school. His friend was driving a Miata and managed to flip it. He died instantly with a broken neck, while his companion walked away with scratches. Kris said the passenger who lived was absent from school for a month, and things were quite awkward when he came back.

Heidi's friend was driving her Mustang home from having tea with another friend, having skipped out on going out to the bar with the rest of the crowd Heidi spent time with. At one point, Heidi's friend lost control of her car, and spun out, coming to a stop on the road. An older couple in a second car, following Heidi's friend's car, witnessed the spin out and stopped to see if she was okay. The wife got out of the car, and walked up to talk to Heidi's friend, when a truck struck the car, killing both Heidi's friend and the good Samaritan. The husband witnessed the fatal crash. Heidi, driving home later along the same road, commented to her friends in the car that someone must have had an accident and it looked like a bad one.

Mark's first friend lost killed himself by rolling over his own head. Mark had already experienced the death of a family member, but not someone his own age. The group of boys were out four-by-fouring when the truck stuck. The driver, as Mark says, "though the best was to fix the problem was to open the door and stick his head out. Yep, it's slipping. Oh, look, it's sticking." The kid was pulled out of the truck, which then rolled over him, killing him instantly.

My first experience with the death of a human was at Christmas one year when I was 11 or 12. We were over at my grandparents when a woman came up to the door, frantically calling for help. The house was two doors down the block from the corner where she was pointing. One aunt called for an ambulance, the other rushed to help the woman's husband. Turns out, he had had a heart attack while driving and managed to pull over losing consciousness. Several of my aunts were nurses, the youngest of which was at the house, and ran over to perform CPR. The man was in his truck, leaning back, looking up, mouth open when they opened the truck door. Several people pulled him out to put him on the ground to perform CPR, and he vomitted all over the place, making CPR almost impossible as they were unable to clear his throat to help him breathe.

The next death I was more aware of was that of a classmate from Indiana. Her death happened, however, when I was in Arizona, I believe my junior year in high school. She was the star of the basketball team when I went to school with her in junior high school, ninth grade. She was the passenger in the front seat of a car driving around Dead Man's curve out near the big Catholic church and the golf course. There were four people in the car, all high school students. A drunk driver struck their car around the curve. My classmate's head went through the boombox in her lap. She and two of the other three occupants died. The one who lived went on to compete (relatively successfully, I believe) at the state swim championships three weeks later.

The next death was the suicide of a football player at my high school. He was good friends with a cross country running, whom I remember seeing as she walked by nearly crying the morning after her death. Mark and Kris both commented that the somber mood of a school the day after a tragedy is what clues the rest of us not intimate with the deceased, that something bad has happened. The cross-country runner's body language was my first clue, though I didn't know until the end of the school day what had actually happened.

I remember years before noticing in passing some airline crash on television. I was over at the Klein's house, passing through the living room following Jenny, when Ken asked me what I thought about the tragedy. I shrugged it off, "I don't know anyone on the plane. Why should I care?"

Years later, those words would smack me in the face when I learned of the death of Ben close after high school graduation. He died on the crash of Northwest Flight 255, out of Detroit. Wind shears. And a pilot who had turned off the cockpit alarms.

Ben's death was the first one that I truly felt. The first one I truly cared about. The first one that forced me to question my own mortality. I remember crying my eyes out at his memorial service, and being so confused why no one else was crying.

18 years later, it still hurts.