Last week while making a last minute trip to the bulk aisle of the grocery store with my toddler, I received a text from a friend. She is the cousin of an even older friend of mine. In one sentence with no real details, she asked if I had heard he died.
That night, as I was nursing my baby to sleep, I was thinking of how I would do anything for my kids. That if they were wearing footed pajamas, I would want them to get away with actual misdemeanors and even potential (nonviolent) felonies, and I would try to believe that it wasn’t them. As a parent, I understand why that totally nuts Texas mom wanted her daughter’s cheerleading competition murdered because she thought it would be the best thing for her daughter (although seriously, that case was really, totally fucked. I’m not saying I condone or support it, but I understand how one could be totally consumed with their kids.).
Looking at my sweet babies, I think I finally get that we rebellious teenagers must have scared the shit out of our parents, and our friend’s parents. And I want to say I’m sorry.
Dear parents of the friends of my teenage self:
I hope this letter doesn’t come too late for all of you; it’s taken me a while to realize I needed to write it.
When I saw a picture on Facebook that I dated to about 2000, based on the outfits where it looks like everyone is auditioning for a Bone Thugs music video, or that Country Grammar Nelly is their fashion icon, it broke my heart; but not as much as I’m sure it would yours. It’s not just the poor taste in do-rags that made me cringe, it’s that three of the five faces in that photo are dead.
I’m sorry that I’m making a joke about their outfits; I don’t know how to say all of this without tempering my discomfort by joking. We took ourselves so seriously, as only teenagers do, and we were ridiculous. We were young and reckless, and acted like we were big and bad.
I don’t remember the first friend who died, but I do remember the first funeral I attended for one of my peers. He was driving too fast, lost control of the car and it flipped – killing himself and two of the other three passengers. I was 17. It was never clear whether he was drunk or not, but we all knew he “liked to party” as we euphemistically called it back then, so it wouldn’t have been surprising if he wasn’t sober behind the wheel.
There have been funerals that I haven’t attended, and letters of condolences I haven’t written. As the years go by, I’m no longer hit with shock and the “Oh my God, how can this happen?” response like I was when it first began; now I just think, of course. Of course someone else is dead, of course it’s too soon; of course. We’re from Baltimore where drugs are everywhere, or we knew each other from shows, or we met through group therapy so of course they’re troubled, or some other reason that makes this slow disappearance of people I knew as a teenager explainable and normal, which while all of the death has become routine, it will never feel normal.
Now that I’m a parent, I owe you – the parents of my friends when we were all young and dumb – an apology.
I get it now. I see why you were so mad when you found us drinking, or outright caught us using drugs. I understand why when we stayed out all night, not coming home at all and not calling, made you crazy. Some of us even had pagers because 1999 and all, and those grey numbers would go ignored by the few of us that had cell phones and could have helped your child respond. It makes sense why when we would show up with the rising sun, you going to work and us going to bed, you had a look of anger and disapproval in your eyes. You were scared; we did that to you.
There were things we did that were beyond what normal teenagers do, and ways in which the trouble around us must have been terrifying to you.
To the mother whose career we potentially jeopardized when your son stole your prescription pad, I’ll apologize for all of us. He is one of the faces in the photo that isn’t here anymore, dead at 30. To the father of the boyfriend whom I called to say he had been arrested, but not where he was taken or why he was arrested, I’m sorry that I was so unhelpful. To his mother, I’m sorry that I knew at 18 that his drinking wasn’t normal, that his shaking hands signaled a deeper problem, and that I didn’t have anything in me to be helpful to him or to tell you in case you could get him help. He’s gone too at 29, with a car trapped in a cold Colorado river; another face faded from the photo. And to the family whose son died last week, I’m sorry for your loss. As the years went on and I stopped being a teenager dancing with the edge and became a straight-laced adult, my fear of him being part of that old life kept me from letting him back in. I don’t know that it would have helped him or not, but I’m sorry that I didn’t try.
There are other people who aren’t in that one photo who didn’t make it in the last 15 years. To the family we judged based on the rumor that you moved everyone out of state to get away from the bad friends and the trouble in Baltimore – you were right to do it. You were right to try to get your kids somewhere safer, and whether that really was the reason or not, I’m glad you tried. I’m sorry that it didn’t save your oldest son.
I don’t know if it would make you feel better to know that some of us are different now. We’re nice, normal, mellow people with some impressive adult job titles and secondary titles like mom, dad, husband, wife. Some of us are sober – forced into it by the same circumstances that claimed your babies – and some of us are just older and wiser and got the bullshit out in the early years.
I’m sure that I’m not the only one who is sorry. There are those of us that ache for you, the parents, as we mourn the multiple and repetitive loss of our friends.
If my babies grow up to be like how I was, I know that I would have had it coming. But I hope they don’t, or I hope that I would be as strong as the family that moved away, or as determined as the mothers who confiscated car keys and credit cards and banned their children from hanging out with the “bad friends.” I hope that I can afford therapy or any other help my kids need, but I also hope that I’m able to see their needs. I know that those of you who have lost your children were the best and most loving parents to them, that you did everything in your power to help them, love them, and keep them alive. I’m afraid of my child going to preschool; I can’t imagine your fear when your babies grew into teenagers who would disappear for days on end.
I will keep saying it, but I’m sorry. For the pain, the terror, the heartaches that we caused. The sleepless nights, or the moments where you cursed all of us for being around your kid.
I’m sorry, and I wish we had known and done better. I hope that your kids made it out, and to those who didn’t, I’m sorry for your loss.
Notes on this post: I am choosing not to share the photo mentioned, where three of the five people are dead. These are very real people and it’s not fair to share their faces without the permission of their parents, which I’m too chicken shit to ask for right now.
The smiling (and yes, potentially intoxicated) faces in the featured image have all grown into fabulous adults with some of the adult titles mentioned, which is why I’m using it. I’d like to thank the year 2000 for the awesome puffy blue coats and our impeccable taste in Bud Light.