Do you remember exactly what you were doing on this day, twelve years ago?
You never know the days that will change you forever. They start out like normal days, with normal things. Breakfast and tying your shoes and buying groceries. But by the end of a day, you’re a completely different person. Everything you did takes on an awful significance; you think about the day before, and the day before that, and wonder if you’d done one thing differently—not recommended a movie or picked up the phone instead of writing an email—the day might have had a different ending. Everyone has those days. They become the landmarks of our lives, forever burned into our hearts.
Twelve years ago, it was October 3, 2004. I was 19, a sophomore at the University of Dallas. I lived in Catherine Hall with my friends. It was the weekend before Charity Week at UD, one of most students’ favorite times of year, a golden time on the cusp of midterms when everyone pulls together in silly stunts and festivities to raise funds for the junior class’s chosen charities: hard work and hard play mingled together for a good cause. My parents were in town for the weekend.
I’d recently gotten out of a longish relationship, one that had me feeling trapped and miserable, and for the first time, I was free and single and really, truly happy. My friends were all within shouting distance, I loved college, and I was going to spend the next semester in Rome. I felt like things had finally fallen into place for me.
So when I dragged myself out of bed after going to bed at 2 or 3—my friends and I had gone to a late-night showing of Ladder 49, of all things—and I went to meet my parents for breakfast, life felt pretty perfect. After my parents left, I did normal Sunday things: laundry, homework, a quick trip to Kroger, chatting with my brother on AIM.
I distinctly remember telling my brother I needed to get tea. He told me to get green tea instead of black tea because it was better for me. Those were the last words he ever said to me.
Oddly, I remember scattered things from later in the day more clearly. I bought Stash Chai tea because my dad had just introduced me to chai from Starbucks and it was so delicious, I needed more. I had an economics test the next day, but I didn’t study. Instead, I went to my friend Alicia’s room and we watched our favorite scenes from Return of the King. At dinner, I ate a bowl of whipped cream on a dare. I went back to my room, and I still didn’t study, which is, of all the quirky things I did that weekend, the most out of character for me.
I was lying on my bed, staring blankly at my notes, and I turned to my roommate and asked if she was going to Mass that night. She said yes, and I packed up my notes and went with her. Skipping study for church wasn’t something I did, ever, and I still wonder why I did it.
After Mass, I tried to call my parents. No one answered. I left my brother a message on AIM, asking where everyone was.
Eventually, I gave up on studying and went to bed.
When the phone rang at about 4 a.m., I knew something was wrong. I answered. My parents were at the dormitory door and needed me to let them in. It had to be bad, for them to have driven three hours home and three hours back again. My hands shook as I tied my new robe–purchased that weekend with my mom–over my pajamas. I still have that damned robe, for some reason, even though I think of this night every time I wear it. I ran through the halls and down the stairs to front door. My parents were there, pale and red-eyed.
My dad told me there had been a car accident, and my brother had been killed.
He was 24.
After that, the flashes of memory become more scattered and much more vivid. My hand shaking as I tried to unlock the door and let us back into the dormitory. Sobbing on a couch in the common room, asking if Brandon knew how much I loved him. The RA poking her head out of a study room door, wide-eyed, asking if she could do anything to help. The moment of renewed horror when I realized my brother had died while I was at church. My roommate tucking my rosary into my backpack before I left. The stuffed rabbit that went everywhere with me when I was a kid, waiting for me in my parents’ car. The message I’d sent my brother on his computer screen, unread.
There are other memories I won’t tell you about—memories I wish I didn’t have, and I have no desire to share that pain. We’re all shaped by our own pain, and putting more of mine on you won’t help lessen the hurt.
I am not who I was. I am not who I could have been. I am me—but the other me, the me that could have been, died in a car accident on October 3, 2004 with my older brother.
I don’t have a nice resolution to this post. I could say happy things about who I am now, how my brother would be proud of everything I’ve done, that my family and friends saved me from my grief, over and over again. That’s all true. But that’s not the point.
The point is to say that those memories, awful and jagged as they are, are a part of me now. Sharing them won’t make them go away. And I know that everyone reading this probably has a day like this one.
I simply hope, for everyone who has an October 3 in their life, that someday you reach a day, a year, a lifetime, when you don’t have to stroke those jagged edges with fretful, anxious thoughts. I hope that someday you can look over them with the clarity that tells me now that there was nothing I could have done. I hope someday the obsession that resurrects those painful days at the worst moments of your life gradually eases its hold on you.
I hope, above all, that you have someone who listens when you want to talk or distracts you when you don’t want to think.
And if you need someone, I’m here.