“I think Patrick died. I have to go be quiet somewhere, I’ll talk to you later.”
These words, sent in a message from a close high school friend, flashed across my computer screen on a rainy day last October. For a moment my brain was in chaos, flipping through the chapters in my memory, trying to focus my mind on which Patrick, from what place, from what time in my life. The word “died” looked so out of place, so jarring, it made my vision go blurry. There is only one Patrick we both know, only one Patrick deployed in Afghanistan. The news articles of Patrick’s last effort to save a fellow soldier began to flood my facebook feed, confirming the worst.
Like most things, the news of Patrick’s death has sunk in slowly and silently and yet with such heavy weight on my heart that it seems to creep in with its inexplicable emptiness before I can even realize it sometimes. Loss is a strange and uncomfortable thing, it doesn’t feel right grieving Pat when there are so many that know him and grieve him in a deeper way than I possibly could. The truth is that when I learned of Pat passing away it had been a long time since we had talked – years even. The period of time our lives intersected was so brief, just a blip on the screen, and yet it left such an indelible mark on me.
Since I learned of the loss of Pat, the steady-rhythm-rumble of skateboard wheels on gravel echoes in my thoughts and I see Patrick rounding the Carlisle, Pennsylvania street corners of my mind, of my youth. This plays on loop, Patrick eternally rolling and rolling and rolling down that hill on Butler road, flashing his wide, infectious, grin to a fourteen-year-old me, over and over. And the tiny part of my heart (we all seem to have even as we grow old) that feels eternally ‘fourteen’, breaks over and over again. When I met Pat I was the new kid, as we both had so often been, and I was lost. I was starting high school having just moved to Carlisle from Greece, and I was having a rough go of it. Patrick offered me friendship and a reason to start to love Carlisle, a reason to try. We spoke about growing up in military families. He spoke about music and poetry and his interest in culinary school. He was smart, and dynamic, a bit of a mess at times, and this spoke to me. Patrick was never anyone other than himself, and this was at times hard to come by in small-town Pennsylvania, and in the world in general really.
When I first heard of Patrick’s death I was headed to my first day of Postgraduate classes. I told no one initially, there is nothing in my life here that overlaps with the life that Patrick and I had in common – the military posts, the deployments of loved ones, the military family, friends and acquaintances that belong to what seems like a different life I once lived in a foggy dream. Patrick’s passing has come after I have seen both my father (twice) and brother off for deployments to Afghanistan. There is no way to express what learning of a loss like this feels like for those of us who have allowed our worst nightmares to carry us to a place where we imagine the knock at the door, and the unidentifiable car in the driveway, the drop in the stomach and weakening knees before rational thought can even take hold. Members of the military family learn to suffer these things in silence, feeling sorrow for those who will never be able to welcome their loved ones home, tinged with the guilt and relief that you somehow escaped this fate. I hurt for Patrick’s family, even as a teen he spoke of them with such loving admiration.
So now months later I am somehow better able to digest the thoughts that inevitably follow learning of a life cut short. As my father once put it, I cannot bear the thought of a soul passing through life so quickly. I want to run and unearth old abandoned diaries that are full of teenage angst and girly high school crushing over Patrick, I want to preserve any picture ever taken just to be able to remind myself of all the places my heart has been, and that Patrick touched so many lives in his short twenty five years spent on this earth. Patrick, we will hold your memory close, we will share it with others.
It seems silly, but sometimes when I’m on an evening run and I’m hitting that last quarter mile and I can’t breathe and that mark I’m trying to hit seems like its getting further and further and the mass of people I’m dodging keep getting denser and denser and my heart is beating straight out of my chest and I don’t think I will make it – I think of Patrick. How he must have felt in that split second of reaction to seeing a friend go down before him, and how his brain must have gone blank and his vision a soft purple around the edges and he just moved forward when everything in his body was shutting down, simply because he knew he had to get there and this commitment was so intense and beyond comprehension that the option of NOT moving did not conceptually exist in that pocket of time. And on these evening runs, in this split second of thinking of Pat, I have the most grateful heart for love winning over the absurdity of politics and war, and the limits of the physical body. And my lungs open up and I become super human and I sprint all the way to that stoplight I have in sight, and beyond.