In the spring of Junior year in high school, my friend Doug died. We weren’t close friends, but in a graduating class of sixty-five students, losing one was enough to turn your world upside down.
Doug was part of the preppy group, and I was part of the group Doug’s friends made fun of. He wore Abercrombie & Fitch, hung out with jocks, and caught the attention of more than a few girls. I wore baggy T-shirts, befriended band geeks, and was a wallflower at school dances, lamenting, “When are they gonna play some Pearl Jam?”
We weren’t that much alike, Doug and I, but we’d known each other for nearly eight years, which was long enough for me to know something about him that not everyone knew: Doug had a heart condition.
So when I heard one day in school during second period that he’d collapsed on the gym floor, I didn’t think much of it. This had happened before and was probably nothing. By the end of the day, I’d forgotten all about it.
We heard the announcement that Doug died at 3:00. It came over the intercom nine minutes before the dismissal bell rang. Nine minutes—hardly enough time to process a life-changing event, much less the death of a classmate. But that was all we had.
Hearing the news, our eyes widened and jaws dropped, but no one cried. We stared at each other, at the floor, at the teacher, looking for someone—anyone—to give us directions on how to react. We were all too young to know what to do.
The bell rang and no one moved. A minute later, our principal’s crackling voice appeared on the intercom, telling us we could go to the gym to “talk with someone.”
Assembling in groups according to our social circles, grief finally set in. The preps cried. The jocks sat solemnly. The goth kids asked, “Do we have to come to school tomorrow?” But a lot of us simply sat in shock, unable to move our mouths or feet.
I didn’t know what to do. Sitting in the bleachers and staring at the shiny wood floor where Doug’s body lay only hours before, I thought about life and death and my own mortality. It all seemed like too much for a seventeen-year-old to take in.
After thirty minutes of watching classmates weep while others made snide remarks, I went to my locker, grabbed my stuff, and drove home. Fifteen minutes later, my mom greeted me at the door, wrapping both arms around me, and squeezed tight. Then I cried.
That summer, life was different. We were all grieving, but each in our own way. My friends and I decided to relish every moment we could, because we now knew there was no promise of the next.
It began with doing something I was deathly afraid of: picking up the phone. Since I didn’t have many friends, I started with the people I ate lunch with, asking if we could get a group together to go bowling.
This turned into a weekend ritual that soon grew into regular hangouts several times a week. Eventually, we did everything together: watched movies, studied together, even drove the downtown strip (there’s not much else to do in rural Illinois on a Saturday night). We did anything we could to avoid being left alone.
Having spent the first two and a half years of high school in hiding, a group of friends was new to me. Afraid of getting picked on for being too smart or too chubby, too geeky or too shy, too funny or too different—I had done my best to become invisible. But now all those fears suddenly seemed trivial in light of that gym floor. I’d seen somebody who seemed to have everything lose his life, and I wondered: What would I have to lose?
The summer after Doug died, I lost twenty pounds. I became a runner and started eating healthy. I got a job as a cook at a restaurant and finally found a group of friends I could be myself with. Tragic as it was, something beautiful was born from that death. I don’t think it had to happen, but it did. My friends and I weren’t trying to make the most of it; we were just trying to survive. But in doing so, we learned a valuable, overlooked lesson about life: It doesn’t last forever.
Senior year came and went quickly. I asked Katie the cheerleader to the Homecoming Dance, and she said yes. I was also accepted to a private college on scholarship and also got my first girlfriend—followed by my first breakup. Through it all, I grew to appreciate the ebb and flow of life, treasuring every moment as a gift.
The following fall, I left home for school. Those next four years were some of the best in my life. I met people who would become some of my best friends, even married one of them. I studied abroad for a semester and got to see the world. I learned another language fell in love with travel. I even began to discover my calling as a writer.
Never again was I the invisible kid, the scared-to-death teenager who hid in the hallways. Now, I knew the cost of anonymity. I had learned that being noticed and vulnerable was nowhere near as scary as losing your life—not the empty, fear-filled existence I’d had before, but the real, abundant life I now treasured.
I learned all these lessons from an untimely death on a high school school gym floor. Or maybe, perhaps, in spite of it.