In junior high school I read The Pigman, a coming-of-age story about two kids who encounter tragedy that hurls them into adulthood. I felt lucky that my life had been pretty stable compared to the characters in the book, but after finishing it, I often wondered when I would meet The Pigman myself and have to grow up.
It didn't take long. Just before Thanksgiving when I was in 11th grade, my friend Laura was killed in a car accident on her way home from her after-school job. She had been riding in a car driven by a fellow student. The driver and another passenger survived, but Laura bore the brunt of the crash when the driver failed to make a quick turn off the highway and a truck barreled into them.
I had seen her just a few hours earlier, when we were waiting for the bell to ring after swimming class. We had finished early and there were a few minutes to go when I saw Laura leaning against a wall, holding her books close to her chest. She had on those unmistakable, thick-lensed glasses she always wore, and a red and black plaid outfit with a V-neck top. She had left her pale pink winter coat unzipped as she stood under a clock beside the warm pool. For one of those strange reasons that we imbue with so much meaning afterward, my eyes met hers and, instead of just waving, I got up from my seat on the bleachers and walked over to say hello.
We chatted about swimming and how we both planned to play on the softball team again in the spring. She told me she had just started a job packaging cosmetics at a nearby factory, and that she was headed there now. She said her boyfriend was worried he'd rarely get to see her anymore. I joked that he'd survive and she laughed. The bell rang, we said goodbye, and I left to go home and Laura went to work.
Later that night after dinner, I got an awful phone call from a friend telling me that Laura had been killed. I was stunned and afraid. Was this, finally, my Pigman? I was 15 years old. Three of my grandparents were dead and a few years earlier, a family friend, "Uncle Eddie," had died suddenly in the middle of the night. But they were all grownups, so it didn't seem so tragic. Laura's death was different, and it made clear the painful fact that The Pigman was everywhere and we'd all have to learn to live with him one day.
I hung up the phone and went to my room. I couldn't believe Laura was dead. She was still a kid, my age, and I'd just seen her. It occurred to me that, for the first time, my life felt real. Nothing so dramatic had ever happened before and maybe this was what it meant to be an adult. Knowing Laura never would become one herself made me feel guilty, so I tried to bury the thought so deep it would go away forever. But still, there it was. I turned off the light, climbed into bed and waited for the day to be over.
The next morning, I got ready for school, which was around the block from my house. I stopped at my neighbor's to see if she wanted to walk together. Her mother answered the door and I asked if she'd heard the news. She had, she said, as she shook her head in sadness and disbelief. My neighbor joined me outside and we walked to school. We didn't talk about Laura. We just limped along in silence and then went to our homerooms.
The school had arranged for a grief counselor to meet with Laura's friends, so I sat with the group for a little while and then I left. A sad reality had seeped in, telling me again and again that anyone could die -- at any time. This felt like a new idea, and it went around my brain until I felt dizzy and I wondered how long it would last.
In the days that followed, I thought a lot about Laura and the other girls who were in the car with her that day. Then, just before Thanksgiving, I went to Laura's wake. I had never been to one before and I tried to steel myself, knowing that I would have to view her body -- a kid could turn away, but a grownup had to face it. A long line of her relatives, teachers, family friends and classmates were there to pay their respects. No one knew what to say or do so we all stood around and waited to touch the casket, to see Laura and to say goodbye one last time.
When it was my turn I stood over her, thinking it wasn't as hard as I thought it would be to see her like this. If I closed my eyes I knew I could see us playing softball, chatting in gym class or waving as we passed each other in the hall. But for now, I looked Laura in the face, stood still for a moment and made a promise that I would never forget her.
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