It has been twenty years now, exactly twenty years ago today. A day that may have passed by without my acknowledgement except for a dear friend pointing out the anniversary on social media. I know from experience that anniversaries are not always indicative of dinner and roses. Though they often travel with lovely events such as weddings, they also cling on to tragedy too and in this case, a smoldering cigarette had sent a fraternity house up in flames and by early Mother's Day morning, five students were unaccounted for and the impending doom was irreversible. It should have been a beautiful day in Chapel Hill, intrinsic when graduation falls on Mother's Day, on a campus known for its' old oaks and expanse of green and charming brick buildings, including the Phi Gam fraternity house.
How much of life is should, could, or would? Hindsight follows tragedy and certainly not one student, friend, parent, or sibling escaped the thoughts that plague the minds of the ones left behind, in the real time of devastation. What could have saved them? Why do we blame ourselves when life doesn't follow the well-planned path? Should, could, or would, there were no do overs that day. Five students had died in the matter of a few innocent minutes and three of them had been my childhood friends. The stories of sleepovers, first dates, beach week, cotillion, field trips, ski vacations battered my own mind and the loss seemed impossible. I was far away from UNC that weekend, in Wilmington with my parents on a boat and that Sunday was lovely for me until I arrived at an empty condo and the phone began to ring. How many of us have a story to tell about that day? Do others wonder why their brains can remember the details of that moment in extraordinary specificity?
A dear friend called to tell me and asked first if I have heard about the fire. No, of course not. I had been on a boat all day, blissfully unaware and suddenly the walls came crashing down. I was not a sister or mother or fellow student, but my mind screamed in pain when the words came about Annie, Mark, and Josh. The words of incredulous disbelief poured out in vehement rage and I screamed at him over the phone line and was furious that he would make up such a horrible lie. A lie. I remember his voice softened and he told me it was true and still I stormed and he instructed me to turn on the television. A moment of reckoning, the familiar house still smoldering, a portrait that in an instant erased the joy I had collected, a mind that had been full of lovely memories.
Annie had been my very first friend. We had been born just four days apart and there is an old snapshot of the two of us in my baby book, both just sitting up. Mark and Josh came along not long after and at our small private school, the class varied little each year and we traveled together sharing childhood adventures. If I close my eyes, I can still remember sitting on a ski lift with Mark when we were about 10 and I can hear Josh laughing, always laughing and the way Anne's eyes twinkled when she smiled. In an instant, they were gone.
Death is a terrible thing when it comes stealthy in the night and robs beautiful people that were not yet grown up, but not children either. They were five young people with futures just within reach and yet, they could not escape death no matter the perceived invincibility that rules the lives of twenty somethings. My own innocence had evaporated slowly with the cancer that snuffed out the lives of my brother and best friend, just five and three years before. I was an old soul when it came to learning life was not always fair but never had I faced the type of grief that feels like you have been pushed from a cliff and there is nothing to grab onto, just air. The feeling of horror enveloped my whole self and I ran out the door, I just ran and ran. I couldn't run away though and should have known as I had done it when I watched my brother taking his last breaths. I had felt I was being suffocated then and now again and there was no refuge.
The blur of time began almost immediately after those few moments and I drove the two and a half hours back home oblivious to my surroundings. I listened to music and sobbed most of the way, familiar stops a blur and it was not until I pulled into Annie's house, that I realized I had no shoes on. The urge to flee had plagued me and when the running was futile, I began to drive, thinking of the urge to see the parents and siblings. Sitting in the homes of those friends, time in Chapel Hill, three funerals within two days felt like time stood still and then it was over. The events and activities that have been conjured up to soothe the sting of death had reached the end and then the abyss of sadness loomed.
Those who have ridden the wave of sadness know that after the crash ends, the water appears calm but really the churning of emotions of grief and sadness have just slipped beneath the surface and that is even worse. The world continues and you feel but a spectator of the life that is no longer perfect. The reckoning plagues your mind and you wonder how and why this happened, what should you or could you have done and the circling is exhausting and you sleep. When you awake, the thick remembrance swoops in within a few seconds and you remember and the dreaded cycle begins again and again. Years of this as I grieved my brother and less time for friends though I knew enough to what was beneath the surface, even if the palpable suffocating grief was not my own this time.
There were five families that would never forget the anniversary date, particularly the twenty year mark and I'm wondering if they feel like it could have been yesterday. Has it been looming on their calendars for weeks like the anniversary of my brother's death or his birthday? Impending anniversaries have a way of turning the years into seconds and smiles into trembling mouths that can not be trusted to utter the simplest of thoughts or a name. Today I will think of those friends and the joy they brought to their families and I will send a prayer of thanksgiving for their lives. I will remember the anniversary for the five families that never escape the loss or lose track of the date, even as the world moves on, seemingly forgetful. I will reach out and remember those friends that envelope for me, all that is good and kind and joyful. And I shall smile.