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Madeline Wahl Headshot

On the Death of an Acquaintance

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It was around this time seven years ago when she died.

We had already walked across the stage of our high school graduation. The commencement speeches had come and gone. We had congratulated each other, we had our graduation parties, and we were getting ready to pack up our old lives so we could begin a new one at our college of choice.

We were young, we were infinite, we thought the world would never end.

Her death changed that.

I don't remember how I found out about it. A frantic phone call? A text? A Facebook message?

All I remember is the night we stood at the site of her death.

The summer air covered us like blankets. It was Mother Nature's warm embrace and futile attempt at comforting us during our time of grief. The hairs on my arm and the back of my neck still stood on end.

We were positioned in this deformed semi-circle, illuminated by the winking candlelight and the dim street lamps. People walked by to hang another picture at the memorial or place another bouquet of roses on the ground.

They say laughter is contagious but I believe crying is even more so. The people gathered here, the classmates and teachers and friends and family and other people I didn't recognize, will never know, all had tears streaming down their faces.

The tire marks were still fresh, and I couldn't help but imagine the straight path the car took until there were no more tracks, until the end of the yellow brick road was death. I avoided it like it was poison.

I felt the breath leave and come in between my lips, felt the breeze on my skin, the smell of mud and dew and summer. My mouth tasted like morning breath even though I had brushed my teeth earlier that day, and it was uncomfortable. Death will forever be an uninvited guest.

We just stood there in silence, accompanied by the quiet sobs and the breeze in the air.

She was supposed to be a white-coat wearing doctor, with a stethoscope around her neck, or a famous lawyer winning her case. Her hair-sprayed, scrunched brown hair should have been blowing in the breeze as she traveled down Palmetto Park Road on the way to the beach during summer. She was smart, proud and had her entire life ahead of her.

She wasn't supposed to be in a casket six feet under ground at 18.

***

How do you react to the death of someone you barely knew, or didn't know at all?

A few weeks ago I attended a book reading in honor of Marina Keegan, the recent Yale graduate who also died from a car accident days after her graduation. I stood among dozens of loving family members and friends and acquaintances. Keegan's writing is uplifting, inspirational. If only she had lived! She would have been the voice of this generation!

I was observant, quiet. I listened to the kind words everyone spoke of her. The promising future. The generous spirit. I read one of her more famous pieces, "The Opposite of Loneliness," and felt as if I knew a small portion of who she was as a person.

I felt empty inside knowing I have read the words she has written but will never meet her in person.

I still don't know how I'm supposed to feel over the death of someone I don't know or didn't know that well. There's still this gaping hole in my chest which opens up until choking sobs spill out of it and tears pour down my face.

I don't know Robin Williams. I will never know Robin Williams.

However, watching his movies growing up made me feel as if I knew the characters he portrayed. I was an adventurous spirit while I watched Jumanji and Hook. BANGARANG!

I listened to his stand-up comedy routines. I watched Aladdin over and over again. As a kid I wished I had a lamp I could rub until a genie came out of it. I laughed and cried at his role, and the thought of divorce in Mrs. Doubtfire.

I don't know what to think or how to think of this talented actor and comedian and so much more who is no longer with us today.

There is so much time, and yet there is never enough.

I will never understand death. I will never know the intricacies of how it works. I don't know who will die next, and whether it will be someone who I'm close with or someone I barely know or have never met.

All I know is that when I hear the news of a death of a friend or a family member or an acquaintance or someone I don't know, the day is a bit dimmer. I cast my eyes downward and a little piece of my soul is chipped away.

Rest in peace, Robin Williams. "You ain't never had a friend like me."