I met Nick when I was sixteen years old. He was fourteen, my mom was throwing a family barbeque and my cousin asked if he could bring a friend. We said sure and the next thing I knew, a handsome guy, two years younger than me, was standing at my door.
We spent the time up in my room. He laughed at my shocking number of Jonas Brothers posters and called me insane. We took Photobooth pictures on my brand new 2007 Macbook because the filters were cool and nobody had those computers yet. We dipped Oreos in milk and Nick made the most hilarious disgusted face because he was accustomed to Whole Milk and my mom only bought 2%. We swam in our pool, played a bit of water volleyball. Then at night we roasted marshmallows and probably snuck beer in our cups when our parents weren’t looking.
I instantly remember loving this kid. I can’t explain why or how because we had almost nothing in common. I just thought he was the coolest thing since sliced bread.
When I make my mind up about something, I go after it full force, so poor Nick probably felt overwhelmed when all of a sudden he was being chased by his friend’s cousin who went to a different school. Not to mention, I was older. But there I was, at his doorstep days later, ready to be his best friend.
“Want to do this? Want to do that? I have a car and you don’t, so let me drive you everywhere. You may not be aware, but I just made you my new best friend.”
Eventually, he conceded. We did absolutely everything together. He would come over to my parent’s house and sit in between my mother and I, watching movies. That’s how close we got. I took him to the mall and taught him how to drive in the parking lot. The first time he stepped on the gas, I begged him not to floor it. I said I trusted him not to. But he did.
He stamped on the pedal, aimed for a crowd of pigeons, and quite literally let out a battle cry. We were going full force toward that poor gaggle of birds. I can’t remember if I was crying or laughing or crying from laughing so hard.
This is how we were when it was perfect. Then it got hard.
Nick suffered from addiction. He partied way too hard. Suddenly, I wasn’t just his best friend anymore. I was his caretaker in every aspect.
I was the objective friend, his girlfriend, his mom, and the principal all wrapped up into one.
It felt like I needed to save him from himself. I was too damn young. He was too damn young. I thought I could make him be a person he wasn’t if I tried hard enough. Because I didn’t want him to be an addict. I wanted him to be fourteen-year-old Nick who only drank Whole Milk.
When I got the call, it was from my cousin. He delivered the devastating news in as delicate a manner as possible. I am so fortunate that it came from him and not someone else because if anyone understood my relationship with Nick, it was my cousin. He saw whatever it was that was in both our eyes when we looked at each other. He got it, even if we never spoke about it.
Suddenly, the secret fear that had haunted me the past four years was my 24/7 reality. I saw for the first time with a clear head, mind, and eyes everything I had subconsciously chosen to turn away from throughout the years. I saw the signs: the signs that proved he was taking steroids, drugs, committing troubling, reckless behavior. I couldn’t chalk it up to “he’s young and likes to party” anymore. His death was what it took to prove it was a much bigger problem than that. And I blamed myself for being in an impenetrable little cube of denial.
His demons, the demons I had tirelessly tried to convince him didn’t have to be his, had finally caught up to him when he was 19.
The most heart wrenching part of the entire situation was the immediate sense of responsibility I felt. This was my fault. I had been away at college, prepping for my senior year. I wasn’t there, that night, at that particular party to keep him alive, like I had been at all the others. To force feed him water. To stop him from taking that last thing that he took. To cut him off from the vodka. I had finally chosen to give up and let him do what he wanted and then this was the result. I collapsed. I broke. I lost myself.
For months, I hadn’t the slightest clue how to grieve and I felt like no one around me was helping me.
No one could look at me, no one knew what to say to me. I was hurting myself because it was the only logical way I could cope: If I’m okay enough to eat, then I must not have ever really loved him. I must be fine. I must not be hurting. But if I don’t eat, then I am physically grieving, physically punishing myself for losing this one. Something inside me told me this was my responsibility. “Keeping him alive was the reason you were here and you lost, Stephanie. You lost.”
One of the last things he told me before he died, he told me while we were sitting at a picnic table by the docks. We had been talking about how hard things had been lately. He told me he wasn’t happy. He told me things weren’t good. He was struggling. He was desperately trying to get out of his house. He was working crazy, long hours to save up enough money.
He said, “Stephanie, all I want is to just come home and have dinner be waiting on the kitchen table. I just want to sit down and have a family meal.” It broke my heart.
No wonder he didn’t mind sitting sandwiched on our couch between my mom and I on a Friday night. I wanted to make it better for him. I literally wished I could present him with a new life. But fixing his life was something I was physically not equipped to do. He was the only one with the tools.
I know for a fact the night he died that he was talking about me — that part kills me. It also reinforces that the doe-eyed fourteen year old was still somewhere in there, even if buried underneath layers and layers of substances, demons, and emotional heartache.
Fourteen-year-old Nick was still there, despite how intensely 19-year-old Nick tried to numb him away.
I still, to this day, have no idea how to deal with grief, but have been through enough therapy to know that I could not have saved him. I did love him though. Hard. Remembering that makes it easier.
If he hadn’t had that love, who knows what would have happened prior? It’s a humbling thing, to lose something you love so much. You think, if you just love them, nothing will happen to them. Love is so fierce and powerful an element, it will protect them. But then life proves to you that you don’t have much power at all.
I think that’s okay, to realize we are powerless. We can’t be afraid to love just because it could be taken away from us. And what is grief if not the ultimate reinforcement that love was real?