Today is my birthday… it’s funny, because I don’t say that with enthusiasm as many people do.
I’m now 27 and yet, I have spent the past few weeks looking back…
I’m still young, but after all these years, my birthday is actually the day I fear most out of the year. Not because I’m getting older, that doesn’t bother me. No, for me, my birthday is cursed.
I’ve had some of the usual bad things happen, a boy you like breaks up with you on your birthday, you lose someone whom you’ve seen as a close friend, a pet you loved has died and… a boy you like dies on your birthday.
Yes, all of these things have happened to me.
And before you think I’m whining, I’m not. My birthday isn’t always a bad day. I have had good ones in the past.
But… I found myself checking the time as I urged myself to be home before midnight… because in all the years I was old enough to drive, I do not drive while it is dark on my birthday EVER.
On the morning of my 15th birthday, I was informed the boy who I saw as a friend and was too shy to admit I liked, died in a car crash just hours before I woke.
It’s hard to explain how I felt when I turned on my desktop and received that message. Even now, I can’t remember much from that day.
I have been lucky in my 27 years, I have very limited experience with death. I can name each and every person I personally have known that has died and I have only been to one funeral. But this death in particular was difficult for me. Those I had known who had died before that, were much older or I didn’t know about the death until years later.
Most of you who knew me in Jr. High and High School, don’t know about Ray. It’s not a topic I’ve discussed often and it’s from a period of time in which I disappeared from your existence.
In the summer between Jr. High and High school, my mother chose to move an hour north to Natchitoches. I was stubborn and unwilling to tag along. I had just made the LHS volleyball team (one of only two incoming freshman who did), a had a group of friends who I couldn’t bare to part with and so I chose to move to Rosepine in with my father.
I had been promised that I could continue attending LHS, but come the beginning of freshman year, it was proven to be a lie as I was enrolled in Rosepine High School. I had been transferred from school to school a lot by that time. In Tennessee, it had been because they kept changing the school districts (including shipping us across town to Burt next to Austin Peay), but in Louisiana it was because we kept moving.
I never really had luck in Louisiana’s school system. I won’t lie, I was a snob when I was forced to move to the middle of nowhere and leaving what I consider (even to this day) my hometown of Clarksville, TN.
But, I was determined to make Rosepine a different experience and I tried.
I met Ray the first day of school in Home Room. I’m not usually shy and here was this tall, cute boy entering the classroom and one of his arms is in a cast. As someone who had broken their arm before, I remember I actually started a conversation about it. It’s funny, I can’t remember much from that time, but he was one of the few that I do remember.
I still never fit into the small world of RHS, no matter what I did. I was a good girl, who went straight home after school, unless I had cheerleading practice. But, my world in Tennessee was different that Louisiana. It wasn’t until we moved here in 1996 that I realized the differences in races. I don’t remember anyone’s race being an issue in Tennessee. It didn’t matter if you were white, black, purple or green, I was friendly with all.
But in the deep South… that’s not always a good thing and in the case of my stay in Rosepine, I was looked down for it. I was called names for being nice to the black football players, I was called a slut, a whore…
Anyways, I digress.
At a time, when school wasn’t necessarily easy for me, because of the social caste system and my home life was quickly crumbling beneath me… Ray was one of the few people who was always nice to me. I remember he use to walk me from Home Room to Geometry, we had our group of friends who ate lunch together. I even remember some of his friends claiming he liked me, but for once (which is a rare occurrence) I was too shy to admit that I too, liked him as well.
I was pulled from my bad home situation in early November and sent to live with my mother in Natchitoches, which meant another new school. Another horrible social caste system and another period that was so awful, I can barely remember anything about my months spent there.
But I kept in touch with a few people from Rosepine. My mother had mentioned us possibly moving back and I couldn’t help but be excited for the possibility of returning to Vernon Parish. One of my friends had said that Ray was still asking about me, still interested in the silly bleached blonde girl who merely existed in that world for the briefest of moments. He had promised to tell Ray that I liked him as well… and as silly as that sounds, that’s how life was when you were 14.
The morning of my 15th birthday, my mother woke me up for school. Our school was returning from Christmas break a day earlier than Vernon Parish, but I wasn’t feeling well, so I stayed home. At 9:02 am, I crawled out of bed and loaded up our desktop and an offline message appeared on my yahoo messenger.
“Ray died in a car crash this morning. I’m so sorry.”
I know that something within me crumbled. I had never known someone who was my age who had died and I thought maybe, it was some sick joke. Because this was the friend that was supposed to tell Ray the truth the very next day. But a few hours later, I got confirmation…
Ray was dead.
He and another boy, whom I vaguely remember from school, had been drinking and driving when their truck crashed into a tree on the morning of Jan. 3, 2000.
I dealt with the experience as best as I could. I wrote an e-mail to one of the local stations to play a song in his honor, I wrote poems, even a letter to Ray. But… even now, twelve years later, it hangs over my head.
I know it’s silly to regret something as simple as admitting you like someone, but I always have. I felt guilty, responsible even. It was my birthday. I realize how silly I was being. The boys chose to drink and drive, they made a bad decision and Ray lost his life because of it. But that experience was a real eye opener to just how severe the consequences are when you make a decision.
I don’t have anything of Ray’s. Not even a picture to remember him by. The only thing that remains is:
This small piece of paper… as well as one for another friend of mine who died, have literally been around the world with me. I had both with me in my handbook at bootcamp. They were in my rooms in South Carolina, New York, Connecticut and Virginia. They were even taped to the wall of my bunk on the USS Kearsarge when we deployed in 2005.
These small pieces of paper that are all I have left of friends who impacted my life, each in their own way, have traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, been to Spain, crossed the Mediterranean, sailed through the Indian Ocean, been to Bahrain and Dubai. They were with me when our ship was bombed in August of 2005 in Jordan. They were with me as I heard of the destruction from Hurricane Katrina and Rita on Louisiana.
So, on this day when I should be celebrating the dawning of a new year, another year of experiences, I just want to look back and remember the boy who use to walk me to class every day, despite the fact I wasn’t the popular girl.
I have never been perfect. I never will be. But I have continuously carried those who I’ve cared for with me and always will, wherever I go.