It’s true – grief is just like death; a thief in the night. Actually, it’s more like an open wound that has mostly healed and is pretty itchy and you scratch it every once in a while as a reminder that it’s there and to get some relief. And then it hasn’t been itchy in a while. You’re reaching up to the top shelf to grab the box of Oreos and you feel a tear. All of a sudden it’s bleeding again and you can’t find any paper towel to staunch the bleeding. It’s a mess and you have to try to clean it up while keeping pressure on the wound. How do you even do that? How do you do it when you thought the wound was finally closed?
When I was in grade 12, two friends of mine were in a car accident. It happened right before we left for leadership camp. The four days at camp were not in want of tears. Of worry. Of confusion. Of existential crises. We tried to sort through feelings. We came home with the solace that many were feeling just as badly as we were.
That year, I was the lead in the school musical. We were doing a production of The Wizard of Oz and I had made it my mission to make at least one person cry while I sang Somewhere Over the Rainbow. A silly goal, now that I look back on it. I felt that it would be the appropriate way to measure the quality of my performance. And I did it. The weeks after I returned from camp were absolute craziness. I had two huge research projects to work on, the play, stuff at church. I was a busy 17 year old. And I worried and cried over the condition of Cody and Greg in their hospital beds, desperate for any updates that I could get my hands on. School and the show were good distractions. But there was always something that brought the boys to the forefront of my mind, again. I wanted to maybe go and visit, just to let their families (especially Cody’s brother Dustin, whom I had gotten closer with over the course of the year being in a music class together) know that there were so many people standing with them, hoping and praying for the best.
As you can imagine, I had complete faith that they would both wake up and make a full recovery. They were only 20 and it wouldn’t have been fair. They were only 20. Only two years older than me. I’m 24 now. I hadn’t even entertained the idea of either of them not making it. How could I? That wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Greg (thank GOD) woke up. Cody didn’t. Life isn’t fair.
I still remember the exact moment that I got the news. I was in the car on my way home from the Taylor Swift concert in Toronto with a friend. Everything stopped. I hadn’t said what I needed to say. I hadn’t told him how important he was. I hadn’t told him how much I enjoyed watching him play guitar and hearing him sing. I hadn’t told him how much less our music class would have been without him. You never realize that you need to say these kinds of things out loud to people you care about. They already know! How could they not? But that changes when you don’t have another chance. You don’t know that they knew, and now you’ll never get to tell them. I never got a chance to tell Cody how important he and his music were (and are) to me. And it’s something I think about every single day.
My grief was the slow and dull kind; mostly the itch that needed a scratch every once in a while. I dedicated every performance of the musical to him. It was the best offering I could give. I went away to school and watched my friends at home from afar through my computer. I had the poster from the concert we held in his honour on my wall in residence, and then in my house and apartment and house after that. May 21st came and went for five years and I remembered him with fondness and still faint regret. I even wrote a paper about it in one of my first year religion classes. It felt far away and almost unfair for me to be sad because it had been so long and my loss was not comparable to that of his brother, his parents, and his close friends. I realized shortly after it had happened that we weren’t even friends on Facebook. It felt selfish, so I always tried to focus my thoughts on others who were hurting more than I ever could. It was a bandaid on the wound.
Every year, Dustin and his parents organize a golf tournament and dinner as a fundraiser for the music scholarship that they had started for students at my school (which my sister won when she graduated), in Cody’s honour. I had never been able to attend before this year because of being away at school. I was so happy to be able to participate in remembering Cody in a real and tangible way, rather than the distant watchful role I had been in. It was so wonderful to be with my friends, celebrating. And it was to beautiful for me to be able to tell Cody and Dustin’s mum Kim how important Cody had been, and still is to me. Somehow that was a relief for me, to be able to tell her the things that I’ll never get to say to him. It all came rushing to the surface and felt very real for the first time in a very long time. I kept expecting him to show up at the restaurant, all perfect goofy smile and tousled hair. I was so sure that it was all some kind of sick joke, and that he was okay and just had been pulling a Jack Kerouac, travelling with his guitar. But it wasn’t. He wasn’t there. And for the first time in a very long time, I let myself feel it.
It was a combination of that conversation with Kim, Stella Artois, and the realness of being back home with people I hadn’t been with in years, but I suddenly felt the unshakable need to go home. I needed to go home. I needed to leave the bar. I needed to walk. I needed to cry. And I did, the whole way home. And it wasn’t a pretty Liv Tyler kind of cry – it was the ugly, wet, heaving kind. It was everywhere. My face was buzzing with pins and needles the way it does. I felt heavy and tired, exhausted. But it also felt like I was dropping the pain on the sidewalk behind me, lightening the load.
Minus the Stella, I would have known how terrible of an idea this was, but it was cathartic to walk the streets of my hometown and cry out all of the grief. I hadn’t realized how much grieving I still had to do. Had I been pushing it away on purpose? Or had life just hidden it in a place that wouldn’t be touched until I was in that place, with those people. I don’t think I’ll ever know. What I do know is that it hurts because it matters. It hurts because Cody matters. And I have to feel it, because I don’t want it to be hidden in an untouchable place anymore. I’ll feel it every time I do something for the first time, that Cody will never get to do. I’ll feel it every time I pass the highschool, and every time I see or talk to Dustin.
And it’s okay. Because once the bandaid comes off, you can put on some Polysporin so it maybe won’t hurt and itch as much anymore. It will heal. There will always be a mark, and I am so thankful for the mark that Cody left on my life and my heart. It will be a reminder to tell people that I love them. It will be a reminder that you never know when it will be too late, so stop being afraid. Say it. Say everything. Make sure they know.
Somehow, I feel that he does know. He knows because we’re all here year after year, celebrating his life.
And I still will be, for as long as I have the opportunity.