The Good Die Young

I was friends with a boy, beginning in kindergarten until his death in fourth grade. On our very first day of school, we kissed each other on the lips after another kid dared us to.

He had the bushiest eyebrows of any kid I’d ever seen in my life, and a little cavity on one of his canines (I can’t recall which one). Somehow, I just knew that we would be best friends that first time we met.

As we moved from K through 4th, we gradually became closer, though we rarely saw each other outside of school. The Christian academy we attended didn’t have a cafeteria. It didn’t even serve lunch, so everyone had to bring their own.

My mom always packed me an egg or a bologna sandwich, like most of the other kids. Sometimes, when she didn’t have time to make me lunch, my dad would buy me a burger and drop it off at the school office for me.

My friend, on the other hand, would come to school with fried rabbitfish or some savory chicken dish in a huge Tupperware and perfume the entire classroom with his lunch. His food often turned off a lot of the other kids, especially the foreign students, but I always joined him, and we’d share our lunches.

I remember that morning, the day after he died. I was walking towards my classmates, gathered in front of our classroom, and I knew immediately that something was off. Everyone was quiet and some of my friends were hugging each other and crying.

My teacher was also among them, crying too, which was weird because she’d usually come into the classroom after everyone was seated. Before I reached them, an older cousin of mine, attending the high school academy, came over and told me what had happened.

I remember feeling confused at first, before turning angry and slamming my backpack into a wall.

The day before, we had gone to the local college where my dad worked, to research our science project at the library. After that we walked to our classmate’s house and played video games before returning to school, just as the sun was beginning to set, and wrestling at the kickball field.

The next morning, he was dead.

It took me a long time to revisit those memories. Even longer to come to terms with my friend’s death. So long, in fact, that I was a grown-ass man when I finally did, and I cried like a baby that day.

After that, I jumped on the internet and googled everything I could think of to find a picture of him. I think I might have started the search sometime around 6 PM and kept at it till well after midnight.

Finally, after wracking my memory all night for anything that might turn up results, I found a video on YouTube. He looked exactly how I remembered him! After watching the video maybe a dozen times, I paused it at the perfect angle and took a screenshot of my deceased best friend.

It was weird watching him moving around and breathing and smiling, especially since the last time I’d seen him, he was lying in a casket.

Sometimes I wonder what he would look like if he were alive today. Would we still be friends? Would he be married and have kids of his own? Maybe our kids would be the same age and be best friends like we used to be.

So many questions come to mind whenever I think about him.

Was I the way I was in elementary and high school—distant, cold, and untrusting of people—because death had taken away my very first real friend? Except for my wife, I don’t think I’ve ever really had a best friend since he died.

This year my daughter entered the fourth grade. She’s the same age as I was when my he died. When I told her about him, her reaction was probably the most authentic reaction I’ve ever gotten whenever I’ve shared this story.

She didn’t pretend to know how I felt or tell me how sorry she was. She just asked me a bunch of questions with a dumbfounded look on her face.

Then she told me she would be “kinda” sad but also “totally” mad if her best friend died and left her. Nothing like a child’s opinion to put things into perspective, huh? I think the fourth grade me would “totally” agree with my daughter. He just didn’t have anyone to answer his questions truthfully.

Some folks might hear a story like this and think, “Poor kid. Never got to grow up.” Or say, “Too bad he never got to reach his full potential.” I used to feel that way, too.

But now whenever life gets hard, I feel like those who died young, they’re the blessed ones. They never got the chance to grow up, so life never got the chance to grind them down.

My friend didn’t have to stress out about trivial things like being late for class or missing curfew. He never had to deal with his first girlfriend breaking his heart or go on living after his mom dies.

He never had to dread turning 30 and feeling like he hadn’t done anything with his life.

Here’s the screenshot of my friend, forever young. Check out those bushy eyebrows lol. Miss you bro!

Image courtesy of Sha Merirei

Is Home a Place or a Feeling?

Though I think it could be both, for me personally, home has gotta be a place. When I think about home, I think about lush, green limestone islands, clean, white sandy beaches, and a lazy, laid-back atmosphere that’s conducive for lounging the day away.

Palau is home. It’s where I experienced many important “firsts” in my life. Things like my birth (though I don’t remember it happening, which is a blessing when you think about it), my childhood, my adolescence, my entering into adulthood. And with each stage came memories of happy times and heartbreak.

In that way, home is a place.

Having said that, all those memories, which have remained with me everywhere I’ve gone since, do evoke strong feelings of home within me. They’re like little mementos, locked away somewhere deep in my mind, that I sort of neglect.

But every once in a while, something happens, jolting me awake and causing a memory to come rushing to the forefront.

In fact, a couple weeks ago, on my way downtown to see a realtor about an office space, Greenday’s “American Idiot” came filtering through the car speakers from a random playlist on Soundcloud. I was suddenly back in Palau, a teenager all over again, free of adult responsibilities and stresses.

From behind the safety of my ride, I rocked out like it was 2004. Folks who might’ve seen me, from the street and the passing cars, must’ve thought I was a total idiot. But it didn’t really matter though, because for those 3 or 4 minutes, I was back home, in Palau.

I love how music can do that—momentarily transport us to a specific time and place, in an instant. Next to writing, it’s most definitely one of my favorite pastimes.

I remember another time, at an aisle in Walgreens, with my wife. She was buying herself underarm deodorant, seemingly going through every single one of them, uncapping and sniffing each and asking for my opinion.

Honestly, I was bored out of my mind. If memory serves, I think I might’ve told her liked all of them, hoping she’d choose one and we could get out of there.

Then she handed me a cherry blossom-scented Secret.

All it took was one whiff and memories of my first girlfriend, both sad and happy ones (but mostly happy), flooded my brain. It had been a long time since I’d thought about her, but that warm feeling of home, of Palau, came alive within me at that moment.

I kinda feel guilty about this last part, but I really wanted my wife to buy it and tried my best to convince her to. I’m not exactly sure why I did, but I did.

Could be that the smell made me feel homesick, and I thought that if my wife wore it around me, it would be as if I’m back home all the time. Maybe. In the end she decided on some other brand whose name I’ve since forgotten.

Upon further reflection, I guess I was wrong in my first assessment that home is more a place than a feeling.

Perhaps, home is a feeling, associated with a place, where important events in our lives happen.

I think of it like the proverbial “white room syndrome” in writing, where characters exist in a vacuum.

We all need a setting to ground our experiences. Some of my fondest memories here in the U.S. have been at loved ones houses, and even Airbnbs, just as those in Palau happened at parties and my ex’s place.

I wonder, whenever I finally do return back “home” to Palau, will I recall my time here in the U.S. and get those warm homey feelings? I think I will, honestly.

This place is, after all, where many important events in my life—raising a family, learning invaluable lessons, discovering my passion for writing, and many more to come—have (and will have) occurred when it’s all said and done.

Featured image by Peter R. Binter