I am the age now that my cousin was when he died.
“Died” feels like the wrong word to use to describe what happened to him. “Killed” sounds too much like murder, like something personal, though it was. He was an American and a soldier. Any other fact about his life was irrelevant. He was part of a team that dismantled bombs. A man sat down next to him and detonated explosives that killed more than twenty people.
This was December 21, 2004. I had just finished my first semester of college and was exhausted from the long drive from Cleveland back to Wheeling. All I wanted to do was goof around on the Internet, but these were the wonder days of dial-up. My cousin Scott had left a voicemail on our Internet Answering Machine (remember those?) asking my mother to call him back. She did on her cell phone, sitting in my room looking shocked. She waited until she hung up to let loose the tears and say, “Cory’s dead.”
There’s no going back to the moment before holding such knowledge, when your only concern is how slowly things are loading. You only get to look forward to the next moment when the things that draw the most attention are frivolous again.
I’ve lost other relatives since 2004, people I have loved very much, but the thought of Cory still hits me hard. He’d coveted the chance to join the Army and then one day get a job at the Pentagon. He struggled for years to slim down and tone up enough to enlist. But I don’t really give that much thought. When I think of him, I think of the guy who had stacks of VHS recordings in his room, Monty Python and the Holy Grail being the most influential in my young life. I think of him watching an early airing of “Jeopardy!” so he could watch the show again in the living room at my grandparents’ house, impressing everyone with his intelligence. I think of one of our last conversations in person when we argued over who sang the song “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” (It was Deep Blue Something, like I said. Sorry, Cory. Your refrain of “You’re wrong” didn’t change the facts.)
Cory was the first one who was part of “my” generation in my family to go to college. He liked history and mysteries, and we called him Mr. A+ Man because he seemed so smart. He made it okay to be a bit nerdy and to have aspirations. We were all going to grow up and have these incredible, far-flung careers, as college and our modest upbringings had assured us since we worked so hard. I’ve still never left the country. He came back in a box, and we were only ever allowed to see his mangled dogtags. The rest was far too grim, even for his parents. You can study, but there will still be guns. You can make the grade, but wars will claim victims who never committed an act of violence. How do you deal with the darkness out in the world without making that grief a daily part of you?
You live. There’s really no other rational choice, and better yet, it comes naturally. It may take weeks or longer, but you cannot live in isolation because we simply aren’t made that way. Something will break through. It could be a pet, a joke, a favorite dish. For me, it was a song. I don’t care how many times it’s been played or covered, I will be forever grateful for Snow Patrol’s “Run” being released when it was. The pairing of “light up, light up” with “as if you have a choice” that jarred me from lingering on the past. I fell for the song, the album, and the band, and I suddenly had so much to look forward to.
So even though this time of year gets me down, I’m going to use it as fuel. I’ll watch Monty Python, but I won’t forget to laugh. I’ll listen to Final Straw but not any less or more than usual. I’ll look back on the six times I heard “Run” live this year and be grateful for all the friends who have come into my life during these concerts who I didn’t know eight years ago. I’m looking forward because 26 is a fraction of a life, and I won’t know how much of my own existence it will add up to be until it no longer matters.