There are certain milestones in a child’s life that we all document: the first step or the first word. We think we are done when they get older, but it goes on: first day of school, first night away from us, and for us, last night: Sam’s first teenage party held at our house while we were home. Being that these are theatre kids, it was a party for The Tonys. But still. There were 20 teenagers in our basement.
I couldn’t help but remember one of my own teenage milestones: the first party I had (when my parents were out of town.) We were juniors in high school and we all swiped alcohol from our parents’ cabinets. Alcohol was a novelty for us, and we all had way too much to drink. Some got sick. One of of my friends, Matt, threw up on our brand-new beige carpet. The stain didn’t come out. This would be my first and only party while my parents were out of town.
Last night, I really wanted to be the cool parent. But I just couldn’t do it. I worried. I worried about what they were doing down there whenever they stopped singing along to the Tonys. I worried whenever they went outside to our backyard. I worried when they went for walks to the neighborhood park. Was I supposed to stay with them the whole time? Was I supposed to follow them on their walks? What if something bad happens?
A few weeks after my party back in 1988, Matt died. He was playing basketball one night at our school and he went back to the locker room and collapsed. He had a genetic heart condition that was never diagnosed. I was the first to learn of Matt’s death, as I had to go to school early that day. I had just gotten my driver’s license and needed a parking permit for my car. All of the teachers were crying. There were cell phones or social media, so I couldn’t tell anyone. One by one, each of one of my classmates came to school and learned of Matt’s death.
As a life-long observer of people, I sat in the lobby and watched as each of them learned the horrible news. What I mostly remember now is how they each walked into school as carefree teenagers, and moments later, their innocence drained away. We think we are invincible until we learn that someone our own age is not.
This week, another tragic death with similar circumstances has hit our community. This time, the 15 year old girl, Maya, was a friend of my son. When I told Sam the news, I had a horrible sense of deja vu, watching his transformation from teenager to adult in a moment.
Then, Orlando. We are accustomed to hearing about mass shootings. My kids to be less and less affected by this news. “We didn’t know any of the people who died.” “It didn’t happen here.”
But this time, my 13 year old daughter demanded answers.
“Why do bad things keep happening to good people?”
I don’t know
“Were gun laws stricter when you were growing up? Is that why this keeps happening?
I don’t know
“Why would God take away a 15 year old girl?”
I don’t know
Then she asked the one question that I realized that I had an answer to.:
“How can I make sure that something bad doesn’t happen to me?”
You can’t. You can’t ever guarantee that nothing bad will happen. Really awful things happen to really great people. And it happens to kids too. But this is what you can do:
You can make safe choices.
You can make a choice to not talk to people online that you don’t know.
You can make a choice to not get in a car with a drunk driver.
You can make a choice to not try drugs.
You can make a choice to not run across a busy highway at night.
You can surround yourself with good people who care about you.
This morning, post-party, I surveyed my house for signs of damage. I looked for evidence of bad behavior. But there was none.
I only found one thing that was new: a water bottle with a wig on top of it. I don’t know what that was about-perhaps that’s what happens when a bunch of theatre kids have a party. Whatever it was, it made me laugh.
I wonder if my parents worried so much during my teenage parties. But they, just like I, have probably learned that no matter how much we worry, we can’t stop bad things from happening. We can buckle our seat belts on the plane and we will still die if it crashes. We can put helmets on our kids, and they can still get hit by a speeding car.
Matt had too much alcohol at a party and he didn’t die. He died playing basketball with friends. Maya’s parents worried as they placed her on a plane to Israel. What if there were terrorists? There was, after all, a terrorist attack in Israel on the same day she died. But she didn’t die that way. She died while hiking with friends.
To me, the wig on the water bottle is a symbol. Life is ridiculous. It makes absolutely no sense. Some days we wake up to horror and sorrow. And some days, we wake up to laughter and smiles.
There is no guarantee as to what any of us will wake up to tomorrow.