The First Time God Failed Me – or – The Other Posts Are Funnier, I Swear

It was the first day of my senior year of high school.  I remember it had been a really crappy day.  The excitement of being an upperclassman had worn off during junior year and now it just seemed like I had to ride out another year before I could escape to college.

The day was over and I walked out to the student parking lot with my friends Jon, Bob and Mark.  It was a beautiful, sunny early September day and I was thankful to have the first day of what promised to be an awful senior year over with.  The four of us came down the hill toward our cars and Andy came cruising past in his old, gray Jeep Cherokee.  Hanging on to the back door through the open window was Ryan being pulled along on his skateboard.

I don’t know what drove me to chastise Ryan for his recklessness as if I were an adult, but I remember I called out sarcastically, “Yeah, real cool Ryan!”

About two seconds later he went down.  Hard.

At first it was a collective “OOOH” that typically follows a hard hit in any given sport.  But he rolled once and came up on his knees, shaking violently.  His shirt was ripped and his back was all scratched up from the asphalt.  He was shaking really hard and a second later a river of blood rushed from his forehead and down his face.  That’s when we knew it was serious.

Next thing I remember we were back up the hill.  For some reason after school the doors were locked from the inside so students could go out but couldn’t get back in.  So the four of us were there banging on the locked door and hollering.  There was this really young, cute teacher – I can’t remember her name now, but we all had crushes on her.  She saw us banging and she gave us a look like, ‘You know your not supposed to get back in after you leave school.’  But as she got closer I guess she got the sense that we were serious and she opened the door.

We burst through and ran right past her toward the main office.  I think Mark asked one of the secretaries if the nurse was still in.  She said yes and everyone took off running toward her office.  I was the only one who heard the secretary say, ‘But she’s in a meeting in Ms. Reidmiller’s room.’  So I did an exaggerated about face and took off in the opposite direction. No one followed me.

There were a bunch of teachers in this meeting and when I burst in the door they all looked at me like they were getting ready to yell at me for interrupting.  I couldn’t figure out what to say. Or which one of them to say it to.  I didn’t know how to convey the urgency of the situation.  I tried to stay calm and just explain everything and I remember it took them a while really grasp that Ryan needed help right away.

I rushed back to the parking lot.  Ms. Castiglia was hustling down the hall behind me and I remember for some reason stopping and trying to hold the door for her.  ‘Just go, Jon,’ she said and I took off back down the hill as if there was something else I could do.  By this time a crowd had gathered and Ryan had gone into convulsions.  His mouth was full of blood and some of his teeth had been knocked out in the fall. I remember one of the teachers kneeling beside him, holding his head and then it’s all a blur until the ambulance was ready to leave.

The nerdy science teacher was carrying a back pack toward the ambulance and I remember thinking, ‘Hey, that looks like my backpack.’  Turned out it was my backpack.  I must have ditched it when I started my run toward the building and I hadn’t even thought of it since.  I remember awkwardly breaking past the sort of police line that had been set up and having to ask the teacher for my bag back.

My anatomy teacher, Mr. Lusto, was asking me what had happened and I remember one of the EMTs saying to him, ‘We just have to hope for the best,’ and thinking that was an odd thing to say.  It sounded strangely bleak considering this was just a skateboarding accident.

******

That night I was at CVS stocking up on school supplies and I ran into my friend Paul’s father.  He asked me about Ryan and the accident and I told him how I was there and was the one of the people who had gone to get help.  “Wow, Jon,” he said.  “You might have saved his life.  You’re a hero.”  I said I didn’t know about that and I was sure it wasn’t that serious.

I honestly never expected Ryan to die.  Even the next morning at school I was poised for another normal, boring, crappy day.  I was even smiling and joking in the hall when Perry came up and told me the doctors had given him 24 hours.  ’24 hours til what?’ I asked, genuinely thinking he might mean he’d be out of the hospital in 24 hours.

The day was surreal.  Through most of it I still believed he wouldn’t die.  The young, cute teacher stopped me in the hall and apologized for not opening the door sooner.  For a brief, strange moment I was comforting her, telling her it was alright and there’s no way she could have known.  Later that afternoon we found out he had died. The impact of the fall caused swelling in his head that couldn’t be stopped.  It ended up basically cutting off the circulation to his brain and that was the end of it.

We gathered at my friend Garrett’s house.  His parents were great.  They just let like twenty kids hang out in their backyard and they didn’t bother us except to bring us hot dogs and sodas.  Ryan was part of the grungier sect of high school kids.  I was on the fringes of his group of friends, being a member of another punk band.  But because I was there at the accident they made sure to include me.  Lots of kids were smoking cigarettes and we went from crying to laughing over and over again as the evening wore on.  Some guys were playing guitars and some were kicking a soccer ball around and things were starting to seem like they were gonna be okay.

Then somehow my mother appeared.  I had left her a message telling her I’d be at Garrett’s but as far as I knew she had no idea where Garrett lived.  She found out some way or another and I think when she saw all of us kids there she just sort of lost it.  She came up to me with tears running down her face, her make-up all messed up, and hugged me and said, ‘I’m sorry about your friend’.  I had done my best to hide my more motley friends from her and I was definitely aware of all the cigarette smoking going on.  But in that moment my mom didn’t care about that at all and for that I’ve always been appreciative.  We talked a little and I told her I’d be alright and she eventually left and I stayed and we hung out long into the night.

It was Friday morning when I had my first panic attack.  They announced in homeroom that Ryan had passed away and that anyone who felt like it could gather in the auditorium with a few teachers and a counselor.  So we were down there hanging out and I hadn’t really cried yet.  Honestly, I hadn’t been that close to Ryan.  It was my proximity to the accident and my role in alerting the authorities that caused all these kids to reach out to me.  (Before this experience we had all just been acquaintances.  They became some of my best friends.)  Anyway, so it wasn’t when I thought about Ryan being gone that I cried.  It wasn’t when I remembered him writhing on the blacktop.  It wasn’t the accident or the blood or the death itself that made me lose it.  It was when I thought of pounding on that door.  It was the moment when I couldn’t get in the building, when I was waiting for that teacher to open the door.  When I thought of that moment I just started heaving and wailing – hyperventilating, etc.  It wasn’t a sorrow or a mourning cry.  It was a cry of desperation and panic.  So I was sitting in an auditorium chair in the front row when the first one of these hit me.  It was surprising and I couldn’t control it and Pete Krulikowsky, who I barely even knew at the time, came and sat next to me and just put his arm around me until I calmed down.

Those flashbacks lasted a few months.  For a while I wondered if I’d ever get over them.  I remember coming home from Garrett’s on Saturday night and trying to explain the phenomenon to my parents, who had already gone to bed, telling them it was okay and I just wanted to let them know about it in case it happened unexpectedly while they were around.

The funeral was Saturday and it was packed.  The line was out the door.  I had gone through and paid my respects and shook Ryan’s parents’ hands, just saying that I was a friend of Ryan’s.  When I came outside I sat down on the grass and started bawling.  This girl Jen Berkowitz, a blond cheerleader who had known Ryan since Kindergarten but probably hadn’t hung out with him in years, another unlikely savior, knelt down in front of me.

“I wanted to tell them I was sorry,” I cried to Jen.  “I wanted to tell them I did everything I could.  I tried to get help.  I ran as fast as I could.  I tried to save him.  I just wanted to tell them I was sorry.”  She just knelt there in front of me for a while with her hands on my shoulders.  I looked up at her with tears in my eyes.  “Do you want to go back in?” she asked me.  I said no.  Then she asked, “Are you looking at my cleavage?”  What?  No!  “You can see right down my dress, can’t you?” she said with mock-outrage.  I could see right down her dress, actually.  I started to laugh.  She had noticed her exposure before I did and she went on to scold me even though she didn’t move or make any attempt to hide her cleavage from me.  She just went on, “I can’t believe you’re looking at my boobs right now!”  I guess she didn’t really know what to say so she used the one thing she had that she knew could cheer a guy up.  We both were cracking up and eventually we stood up and left.

Finally, it was Sunday and I headed off to church with my family.  My parents’ friends, my pastor and my youth leader had all heard the news.  I looked forward to being comforted by the people in the congregation I had known since I was a little kid.  I craved the prayer the pastor would surely pray from the pulpit on my behalf.  I knew I’d find comfort in the church with my fellow believers.

So I shared the story during prayer request time in our teen Sunday school.  People came up to me and said, “Sorry to hear about your friend.  Was he Christian?”  Thanks.  No.  I don’t think so.  At this, they would frown or grimace.  “Have you gotten any chances to witness to anyone because of it?” they asked me.  No.  Sorry.  I think we’re just still trying to just deal with it, you know?

“And we pray for Jon, who’s friend passed away this week,” the pastor prayed from the pulpit. “We pray that this would remind us all of how our time on this earth is limited.  And how it can be taken away at any moment.  And we pray that Jon would find the opportunity to share the Gospel with the kids in his school through this experience.”  This was not the prayer I had anticipated.  I don’t know what I was hoping for but I hadn’t considered any of this as an ‘opportunity to evangelize’.  And the ‘life lesson’ I had heard so many times felt even further removed, even more empty and generic, when it was in reference to something so close to me.

Nobody seemed to understand that I had just watched someone die in front of my face.  No one seemed to understand that I had shouted what might very well have been the last words he ever heard.  No one seemed to understand that I had seen his teeth lying on the ground next to him while he shook and foamed at the mouth.  No one seemed to understand that I was having panic attacks every time I was reminded of my inability to get through that door and get help.

I didn’t go back to church that night for evening service.  I couldn’t take it.   I went back to Garrett’s house and just sat in the backyard.   I didn’t find comfort in the people or the prayers.  I found it in Pete Krulikowsy’s arm around my shoulders.  And in Jen Berkowitz’s cleavage.   I found more comfort in my grungy, cigarette-smoking friends with their guitars and crude jokes than in the ‘love and support’ of people I’d grown up with in the church for 17 years.

I don’t remember praying at all during that time, though I’m sure I must have tried.  Maybe I didn’t reach out to God but I felt like this was one time he could’ve taken the intiative and reached out to me.  It was radio silence from heaven during that time.  If we’re supposed to have a ‘personal relationship’ with God, if Jesus is supposed to be our friend… well, what kind of friend deserts you in a time like that?    My church failed me.  My faith failed me.  God failed me.  And deep down, I still hold it against him to this day.

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Published in: on May 19, 2009 at 5:37 pm  Comments (5)  
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