I’ve heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason bringing something we must learn, and we are led To those who help us most to grow If we let them…and we help them in return Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true But I know I’m who I am today. because I knew you… Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? But because I knew you, I have been changed for good…
-Wicked, The Musical
Excuse me for being such a theatre geek, but I had to start this letter off with a song from a musical. One of the last times that I was close to you, was while we were rehearsing for a theatre production. 20 years ago, we were the original Glee. Stop laughing…think about it for a minute. You were the handsome, quiet, athletic type. Talked in to joining the Drama Club by a blonde cheerleader who had a passion for the drah-matic (me). And there was dancing. And oh how you loved your music.
I remember where you stood in the auditorium, and how I managed to talk my way into being the assistant choreographer for that show. So that I could partner with you. You lifted me up in rehearsals, and I sat on your shoulder as we practiced a number where all of us would dance down the aisles. I was 14. You were 15. And when I slid back down to the floor that day (in a cheer skirt, no less), my thigh grazed your belt buckle and a bright line of blood came rushing through the cut.
Weeks later, at your funeral, I would run my fingers over the scar that it left. The scar that you left. Your grey sweatshirt, and the faint line on my thigh, the only tangible reminders that you had truly existed. That you, with your laugh full of freedom and your eyes like pools of sorrow, had actually belonged to this world, if only for a short time.
20 years ago, you left us. It was your death that set us on a trajectory that we never expected would touch our small beach town. It was your amazing resilience that propelled us forward, and sheer terror that forced us to never go back. The silvery web of grief has continued to connect us, children who are now grown, friends who became lovers, survivors who became friends.
I struggle with how much you can see now. When I was 14, my girlfriends and I shared a good laugh about whether or not the “dead you” could see me in the shower from your perch in heaven. We decided that if you could, you most certainly would be watching. But what else have you seen?
I think that you already know how we trickled in to the cemetery year after year, like a tiny river, rinsing the dirt away from your picture on your gravestone. I’m sure that you are with Sefe, your strong arms embracing him as he holds the memories of your last moments in a place that no one can touch. You saw Brooke’s baby Mike when he was born, and you’ve watched him grow into a young man. You have followed your mom, and your siblings, and those that touched your earthly life, and I know for sure that you have watched over me. Maybe in the shower, but mostly during the big moments…I hope.
So Mike, I know that you saw what happened a few weeks ago. I know that you were somewhere in the sky watching what happened in Newtown, and that you knew the memories that would come rushing back for all of us. But Mike, did you see what happened next?
I told your story. We told your story. And people listened. I wrote a blog post about you Mike.
And the next morning I woke up to 3,000 page views. By that night it had turned into 11, 000, and by the end of the weekend it was well over 30,000. I had written about what it felt like to lose you, and how angry I was about how the media was treating the children of Newtown. The editors at BlogHer got it. They asked me if the picture they were running next to my words was respectful enough….of you. The Huffington Post shared your story. Radio stations wanted to talk to me….about you. About grief. About how we, those who were left behind, wanted to be treated. Your story found people on FaceBook (I know you have no idea what that is, but it’s a good thing, I promise). I was in shock that weekend, straddling the line between being completely terrified that a viral post would leave my feelings exposed, and crying happy tears that your story was floating through the internet, spreading truth and change and hope to thousands of strangers.
At first I wanted to throw up. I’m 20 years past feeling betrayed by the media, and yet all of the rage came rushing back. I wanted to protect Sefe. I wanted to make sure that you were not any more exposed than you had been. And at first I said “no”. I didn’t want the attention. This wasn’t about me. But then I talked to my mom, the one who drove you in the backseat of her car to join us for dinner in a tiny diner in PB. And I talked to our friends, the ones who spent Halloween riding in the back of a pick-up truck with us, 20 years ago. And we decided that this was a wonderful opportunity to use your story “for good”. For good. I kept repeating it to myself over and over. “Do good”. “For Mike. For good”. I was no longer the 14 year old girl who was alone and afraid. I wasn’t one of the elementary school students being interviewed in Newtown. I was a grown-up this time. And it was my responsibility to do the talking, so they didn’t have to.
And the response was overwhelming. Grown men wrote to tell me about the trauma that they had suffered, and what helped them to heal. Reporters contacted me to tell me that I made them think twice about how they conducted interviews. I heard from a woman whose own trajectory had been changed by the events at Columbine High School, and her gift of words and bravery of spirit added a professional voice to the outcry against the media. Comments on my blog, and at BlogHer, and on The Huffington Post, wove a tight tapestry of support and resilience. And their stories of moving through grief, and effecting change, were brilliant and beautiful and courageous.
YOU did this, Mike. This was you. Your story. Your legacy. Your gift to us.
20 years later, and you still live on through us. Somewhere inside of me, I am 14. In a cheer skirt with your grey sweatshirt on top. I am watching you from across the auditorium, with your headphones on, your glossy black hair illuminated by the theatre lights.Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better? I do believe I have been changed for the better. Because I knew you……Because I knew you I have been changed for good.
-Wicked, The Musical