A heart-wrenching tale, told from the viewpoint of someone who has learned from grief the importance of safeguarding the memories of those who’ve left this world behind…
by: Jon Thomas
Age 16 : The first death of someone close to my age was a teenager named AJ.
I didn’t know AJ, I knew his mom. She was my Chemistry teacher in my junior year of high school. High school was an interesting experience for me because I excelled in what I was good at, but the things that I wasn’t great at…not so much. My schedule was always a mix of honors and college-level History and English classes, then later in the day, I would be in remedial Math and Science. Truthfully, I preferred my peers in the lowest-level-the-school-has-to-offer classes. AP students were so often boring. My Math and Science classmates always had something interesting going on in their lives. The sense of camaraderie we shared in not understanding a single thing that was on the board is what got me through the classes. Chemistry was my favorite. My teacher was a woman named Mrs. B, someone who I quickly dubbed my in-school mom. Unlike the other Science teachers in the school, she had her own office in her set classroom, a place where I often ate my lunches, read a book, and talked with her about the concerts she saw when she was my age or the upcoming ones I had tickets for. She was unlike any teacher I ever had. She was covered in tattoos, she swore openly in class, and she not only tolerated my and my classmates’ shenanigans, but partook in them on occasion. When a classmate, tweaking out in class, attacked me with his fists raised, she covered for me as my prime witness to clear my good name. I liked that classmate before the incident. Looking back, I hope he’s doing okay. I hope he isn’t another young lost soul in this story.
I remember one day walking into Chemistry and noticing a substitute teacher. Normally that was a good omen for a high school student, meaning you could slack off and get out of work for the day, but something told me something horrible had happened. I don’t remember how I found out, but I learned that Mrs. B’s oldest son, AJ, had taken his life. He suffered from a deep depression, something he needed to be rid of. He stepped in front of an oncoming train, rendering him a memory.
It’s ugly. It’s disturbing. It’s real.
I went to the wake with friends who shared a love for Mrs. B. All his friends, and there were many, gathered around his closed casket, weeping. My beloved teacher wept too. When I arrived with my bunch, she sobbed and repeated the words, “My kids.”
We were her kids, only in a different sense. And I couldn’t fathom the loss she was facing, I still can’t. From that moment on, we were bonded. A bond of infinite sadness, but also one of pure sympathy.
Age 17: Amid that same school year, I lost my uncle, Papo, to cancer.
Papa was my mom’s oldest brother. They came from a large family, one that’s prone to fighting and chaos. Somehow though, Papo was above it all. All my titis and tíos nicknamed him “Switzerland” in times of family drama. He was always neutral, always the bridge that helped everyone to make up. He had already beaten cancer once before, but it came back. He knew it came back, but he said nothing. Why didn’t he say something? I’m sure he had his reasons.
Even then, Papa went to work. He performed his duties as a father, husband, uncle, and brother. Finally, it was too late, and Papo was laid out on a hospital bed with a one-way ticket to eternity. He died around Easter. I still wish he was here. I want to drink a beer with him. In almost every memory I have of him, he had a beer in his hand. Some people may call that a dependency issue, but they just don’t understand the role of drinking in a Puerto Rican family. I understand it now.
At Papo’s wake, he was arranged in his open casket with his signature grin and eyes closed in a permanent peaceful sleep. I almost expected him to sit up and say, “hey guy,” like he always said when he saw me. My Titi Neida, the youngest sister in the bunch, attempted to comfort me. “In our family, death is just the next phase,“ she said. “He’s toasting to us somewhere right now.”
When the chips are stacked against you, take a drink. It’s not for the flavor, but it’s not to get drunk either. Make a toast to the ones who can’t raise their glass anymore. Sip in their memory. I get it now. I miss you Papo.
Age 18: A year later, my friend Marisa was dead.
I loved Marisa’s company. Few people had a light like her. She was quiet, but she was always present in the room. She had a warm smile and a kind soul.
I used to promote concerts in my hometown. I was always asking for volunteers, people to help. Marisa baked brownies for every single volunteer for that first show. A testament to the warmth that she carried. I never forgot that gesture, even though I didn’t even sample the brownies that night. She was at all the shows. Every single one.
I remember when I found out Marisa had passed. I was sleeping in, but my phone woke me up. My friend, Matt, was continuously calling me. I sent him to voicemail the first time, but he called me right back. That’s when I knew something was wrong. I answered the phone with my heart already heavy.
“Marisa,” he said.
“What about her?”
“She’s not with us anymore.”
Marisa had hung herself in her parent’s backyard. Her home life was hard, and she was kicked out right after high school. Nobody deserves to face hardships like that. Definitely not Marisa. At the wake, I saw photos of her that I had taken. I cried, attempting to keep the tears to myself. We were friends, but I felt guilty. I felt like I didn’t have a right to cry. I had friends who were closer to her. I wanted to comfort them more than I felt justified in comforting myself.
She still had a presence in the room, even though not with us physically anymore.
I’m sorry I couldn’t say more. I’m sorry I couldn’t help more.
Age 20: On January 8th, 2022, I found out my best friend had died.
I met Gabby when I was 15. She was 17 and had just gone into remission for a form of cancer in her leg called osteosarcoma. She was one of the toughest people I’ll ever know. There was no space safer than the space I had by her side. She was my twin flame, half of my very being and so near and dear to my heart. The funny thing is, we didn’t see each other much after she graduated, but didn’t matter. Whether she was in Brooklyn or North Carolina, we were connected. A call, a text, a random lunch, it was always more than enough. Time passed by, but that only gave us more stories to tell each other. She would tell me about her modeling career which was starting to pay her bills, or her acting career which was starting to pay off too. She worked so hard. Corporate jobs, acting gigs, everything in between. She wanted to buy a house someday. She would’ve gotten that house.
Her husband Robi, her boyfriend at the time we had first met, insisted she see a doctor after a persistent cough wouldn’t go away. The cancer was back, manifesting itself in her lung. I shared the GoFundMe page. I lit my candles. I said prayers. I called, texted, and hoped. I wept. It all didn’t matter.
When Christmas rolled around, Robi posted a ring on her finger on social media. I congratulated her on the engagement, knowing there was something else unthinkable paired with this happy occasion. She wrote back, “Thanks! We’re getting married today, just not signing any papers so it doesn’t screw up my insurance coverage.” I believed her at the moment, but a nagging voice in the back of my mind knew that it was about more than insurance. Scrolling through Facebook just two weeks later, I was reading her eulogy.
It still doesn’t feel real. I still wake up sometimes wanting to call Gabby. I want to ask her is she saw that the new Legend of Zelda game was announced. She would have been raving about it. I want to tell her that I spoke to Travis Stever from Coheed and Cambria about her, a band that will always remind me of her niche tastes. I want to let her know Halloween is almost here, her favorite holiday. We would reminisce about the Halloween she spent with me after I was dumped. Gabby didn’t want me to be alone. I cried into her shoulder as she comforted my impulsive and ever-longing heart. I would ask her if she remembers the goofy Heart and Brain comics we used to send each other. I got the Heart on my arm, tattooed forever. Now I carry Gabby on body as well as my spirit.
Towards the end, Gabby texted me saying, “It was so good to see you.” I teared up. I had not left New York and wondered what she meant. Did she dream of me? Did our souls speak unconsciously? I still remember a dream I had after I found out. Gabby sitting at the head of a table around everyone I know. She told me she was in pain and she had to go soon. I hugged her as tight as I could, savoring the final figurative moments I had left to cherish. She told me she left me in good company. Someday I hope I can see her again. If there’s a beautiful place somewhere with beautiful souls like hers, I hope they let me in. I hope they at least let me visit. I promise I’ll have so many stories to tell her then.
I will miss Gabby until the day I die.
Age 20: My uncle Eddie died, two weeks after Gabby, from a heart complication that I will always blame the state of New York for.
After his incarceration, and a few months prior to his death, the prison that detained my uncle withheld his medication, medicine which was necessary to keep his heart pumping. I have lost. I will lose again. It’s ugly. It’s disturbing. But it’s real. It’s inevitable. Our bodies are borrowed matter, on borrowed time. We all return somewhere eventually.
I don’t have the answers to things like this. I don’t truly understand why I’m still here when the souls of folks as pure as holy water are no longer walking alongside us. But I am still here, and there’s something there. What good would wasting this breath do for the ones I have lost? What good would rushing to join them do? I write their names, I carry them with me. I need to do enough to let them live forever.
Marisa’s final Instagram post was captioned: “Words live forever.”
Age 21: I’ll try to make these words count.
Jon Thomas is a writer based in New York City where he attends Pace University for Creative Writing. As a Nuyorican Jew, he brings with him his unique experiences along with his blunt and often sarcastic tone. He is the frontman of indie rock band Spitphyre and lives in Chinatown with his two best friends and his calico cat Pebbles.