The first thing I noticed was the quiet.
There was silence in the school hall that morning. There was no scuffle of shoes across the polished floor. No one was shouting across the hall to get a guy’s attention; no one was talking about how wrecked they got that weekend or how they saw her best friend’s boyfriend totally checking out her best friend. The conversations I usually overheard were gone, hushed down to whispers or not even spoken of. Instead, there was silence.
The second thing I noticed was the tears. I sat down at a table in the cafeteria, noticing a girl I sometimes talked to. She was crying. Her cheeks were puffy and red, her lips shaking, choking down a whimper. Her eyes were bloodshot, mascara running down her face in broken patterns. I asked her what was wrong, but she said nothing. I noticed her face was one of many. Most people had their heads down, but some were up, with the same puffy cheeks and red eyes.
Someone died that weekend. I heard the story in bits and pieces. My friend, composed yet solemn, told me that a junior was in a car accident driving home from a party. He was a year younger than me.
“He wasn’t supposed to be driving,” someone said. All the faces blur together now when I try to recall who said what.
“He was grounded but he went to the party anyway. He stole his mom’s car keys. He didn’t even have his driver’s license yet.”
“He was so drunk, we told him not to go,” someone else said. “but he went anyway, and then—”
The speaker buzzed on. Our principal called us to an assembly in the gym. A short walk from the cafeteria to the gym, the mass of people crowded together, slowly walking towards the heavy doors. I waited in the back so as to not get caught in the crowd. The gym was already lined with chairs. We didn’t have an auditorium or official center so the gym often functioned as both for events like pep rallies and concerts. This wasn’t like that though.
I sat in the back row, near the door. The principal told a similar story to the one I had already heard from the scattered voices. Sometimes, I heard a choked sob. More often, I heard people who didn’t hold anything back.
Like most mornings at a Catholic school, he led us in prayer. It was either a “Hail Mary” or an “Our Father,” sometimes both. The prayer echoed to the ceiling, and everyone who wasn’t sobbing spoke the words with the usual monotony. And then there was the quiet again.
I never knew him. People talked more about him than before, and I learned a few details of this boy. He was a football player, apparently a good one. He went by Jay Ray. I never knew if that was just a nickname or his actual name. He liked that incessant Soulja Boy song, and it was often heard or referenced in the halls during the days to follow.
I went to his wake. I said I would go and for some reason, felt I had to. It was near my school, in a white church that I always passed but seldom paid attention to. Perhaps I felt some sort of obligation to pay my respects. Or perhaps it was out of some morbid curiosity.
I dressed up in a clean, collared shirt and a red tie, not knowing what to expect. Outside, it was brisk but not cold, a typical autumn evening, nothing special about either the weather or the building. Inside the church was a different story. It was filled with people sitting and standing and there was a line stretching around the pews to see the coffin. I went on the line, and I noticed someone I knew sitting down. I waved at her. I don’t think she ever saw me.
The line was quick, but long. People shuffled silently along, but there was a strange sort of murmur in the air. No one looked like they were talking, but you could hear voices. That always seemed to be the way with churches. You expect solemn silence, but there is always an odd hum floating around, sneaking past the statues and crawling along the long windows of stained glass.
The line reached towards the front, where the pews were crowded, and the display of flowers came into clearer view. All white, I noticed suddenly. The flowers, the ceiling, the clothes, the coffin, all around was white and more white. It would have been startling if there wasn’t this muted quality about it, pale and dim. I found myself at the coffin.
It was closed and I sighed with relief, but there were pictures of him surrounding it. Two large ones were the most noticeable, one with him in a jersey and the other looked almost like a prom picture. He was smiling in both. I tried to put a memory to that face. I was searching for some sympathetic memory, a feeling that I would have, at least briefly, known the boy smiling down at the people in black and white. But nothing came to mind. That wake was probably the only time I ever saw him.
I was never great with the idea of death; it frightened me ever since I was a child. I remembered becoming sick when I went to my fist funeral as a boy. I suddenly thought maybe I shouldn’t have come. I prayed silently to this closed coffin and the picture of an unfamiliar face.
Turning around, I saw his family. They were all looking down or staring blankly. Some were crying, but most just looked vacant. My eyes latched onto the mother. I knew she had to be his mother, but I can’t remember her face. I remember her there, that figure sitting down in front, head down and lamenting the loss of her son. She had lost him so suddenly, so quickly, it must have felt like the world was splitting in two. A dozen questions ran through my mind.
She began to look up and I said my condolences without actually saying them. I opened my mouth and the words were there but I couldn’t speak. My voice was caught somewhere in my throat and it stayed there.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I managed to say in a low, low voice. I felt pathetic and useless, and walked out of the church without a second thought. I didn’t stay for any service or prayers. I don’t know what’s worse, that I didn’t stay or that I didn’t want to stay. All I felt was guilt and grief for a boy I never knew.
“How was it?” My mother asked me later.
“Sad,” I said. “Quiet.”
Sometimes, it comes back to me, crawling around in my mind. Thoughts and feelings I want to push away, but insist on coming back. This wake is one of many memories I would like to change or delete from my head, but I can’t.
He died and I felt sad and I didn’t know why.
I used to cry when we passed cemeteries when I was little, and I felt sick when I thought about death. I came to terms with it as I grew up, but it never left me, that looming presence of death. It is there to remind me, to remind us, that no matter what we do, no matter how far we fly or how low we fall, we will die one day. I will die one day, and I will be forgotten.
That is what scares us the most, I think. That no one will remember us when we’re gone. I look back to Jay Ray’s wake, thinking of all the people that came and mourned him. Perhaps there were some like me, who went for the sake of going, out of guilt and grief for the loss of someone so young. All those people coming to remember him.
I will never have that.
That is the selfish thought that haunts me on nights when I can’t sleep. I toss and turn, and the thought usually jumps in and out, static in a radio. The harder I try to push it away, the more it comes back, whispering a silent hum in my mind. It tells me that I will die, disappear into nothing, and be forgotten by people who don’t want to remember such sad things.
I’m sure people remember him. It will never leave his family, of course. But he was after all, one victim amongst thousands. His death is hardly any different from all of those other drunk-driving accidents you hear so much about, all the ones you see briefly in the news.
It is always in the quiet these thoughts come, and in the quiet they stay, with memories both tragic and commonplace. I feel this urge to push them away, yet their presence tells me they must be heard, they must tell others their feelings, and ask if they feel them too. Perhaps I just have a coward’s heart. I am young, and all I know is what I have seen and lived through.
All I know is that I will never forget when I mourned a boy I never knew.