Remember the Joy
Unless you completely avoid headlines, you likely know by now that the death of Jett Travolta was ruled as due to a seizure. I am immensely sad for the Travolta family, and also can’t help but think about my friend Andy, who died from a seizure-related accident when we were swimming together.
I grew up in a sleepy Boston suburb where my friends and I eagerly engaged in largely innocuous - but definitely off limits and sort of silly - activities. We scaled a lot of buildings, periodically swiped banners (usually relocating them to cognitively dissonant spots), and trespassed on occasion to go skinny-dipping.
On one such lazy summer evening following high school graduation, we went skinny-dipping at Walden Pond in Concord. We had a grand time splashing and swimming, then realized that Andy was missing. He was a bit of a mischievous guy so we started calling out for him, assuming he was hiding; the tone of our calls quickly turned to anxious then utterly panicked. These were pre-cell phone days and our friend Todd – of remarkably solid mind and swift feet (he was on the cross country team) – got dressed and raced off to the nearest house to call the police. (I’m blanking on why we didn’t use a car… I think whoever held the keys probably froze like a deer in the headlights.)
Police, firefighters, and a rescue boat arrived, shining a bright light down into the water while my friends and I huddled on shore, hugging one another and praying and begging for Andy to emerge from the water or woods alive. Rescue workers eventually recovered him from the water – they hauled him out with one rescue worker holding Andy up under each arm while his feet dragged along the sand, his body white, his face remarkably peaceful.
Andy was dead on the scene but we all followed the ambulance to the hospital. We were questioned by the police and stared blankly while we were reprimanded for trespassing. The next day the incident was all over the local news and eventually the autopsy revealed that Andy had had a freak seizure; apparently his lungs filled with water and he sunk and died quickly.
The funeral was similarly surreal. The same friends and I drove together and ended up getting in a car accident. We landed in a ditch, my friend Greg’s car was devastated, and my entire left calf, which had braced my impact, was purple and painful in bruises. I was in the front seat, not wearing a seat belt while I rummaged around the floor of the car looking for music to play, and I still clearly remember looking up at Greg's panicked expression when he screamed, "Christine, hold on!" as he swerved to avoid hitting a car that had stopped abruptly in front of us. Without his warning I probably would have gone through the windshield.
But amidst the pain and confusion of that time, the one remarkable thing I will never forget is Andy’s parents. Free spirits and impossibly positive, through their tears and bright clothing (very different from the all-in-black funerals typical of my family), instead of turning against the high school kids who contributed to his son’s death, Andy’s father hugged us tight and kept telling us to “Remember the joy, remember the joy!”
I have never, ever viewed death the same way since.
Image credit: Walden Pond from FreeFoto.com