She had just turned 21, yet I hadn’t taken her to the bar. That was a thing back then. Going to the bar to celebrate your 21st birthday.
Tons of my friends were crossing into that weird level of adulthood, where nothing seemed off limits anymore. We had just moved back to Sioux Falls, and she had come over to see the new house, and we probably made a date to go hang out; to head to the bar and to do the things that over-21 year olds do. To drink. To enjoy each other’s company. To be friends.
It was old news to us by that point. I was 24. We had become the wise sages of bar life. But she had just turned 21, and I owed her a beer.
And then, she was gone. Just like that.
I don’t remember the circumstances, and I don’t need to. I remember the important part: Beka, our friend, was in a car accident. She was thrown from the car. She was airlifted to the hospital. And she died.
She was 21.
Innocence gets dashed in any of a thousand ways. The unlucky see it dashed while they’re still young. They see it dashed as mere children through any combination of divorce or abuse or space shuttle disaster. It’s the first path toward adulthood, the understanding that nothing is perfect, and that things can be shitty at times. It’s the tragedy of youth: the inevitable realization that nothing lasts forever, and that the shelters our parents help us build are fragile, corrupted and rusting before we even get a chance to reinforce them on our own.
Yet, others hold that innocence for as long as they can. Those are the strong ones. Those are the ones that confront a dying parent with optimism, who don’t much care for the idea that death is an option, and who effectively jam the gears of adulthood through sheer will.
Beka never lost that innocence. Her smile was genuine. Her enthusiasm was contagious. Her spirit acted as if it was looped up on goofballs, always pushing for more. Always looking for fun. Always happy. Always brilliant.
That was Beka. That’s just who she was.
Beka never lost that innocence. But all of us – all of her friends, and all of her family – after that day, at least – did. We were thrust into the court of adulthood, ready or not. We could no longer count our friends by those who would show up for a party – we now had friends who could never show up, because they had passed away.
Days later, we’d spend a cold night in a Catholic church. Some of us never figured out whether we should be kneeling or praying, and we found it easy to pick out the Protestants through their insistance on continuing the Lord’s Prayer. We giggled to ourselves because that’s all we could do. That’s all you fucking can do when your friend dies. That’s all you can do to stay sane. Because, damn it, she was just a kid, and that’s all we could muster to even begin to understand the cruelty of her death.
All we could do is laugh. It was so ridiculous, otherwise.
The day we found out, Kerrie and I were in Rochester, visiting Kerrie’s sister. I got a call from my best friend Jim – one of Beka’s closest friends. He was grave. He had obviously been crying. And he told us the news.
“Beka is dead,” he said.
“What? Shit. I’m sorry,” I responded.
“Don’t be sorry. She was your friend, too,” Jim answered.
Just like that, I knew what we had lost.
When it came down to it, we weren’t close to her – not like others in our group were close to her, at least. But, then again, we were. There was no grey area with Beka – if you were her friend, you were her FRIEND. And every damned person was her friend. Because she was damned good at being the best person she could be.
I don’t think of her a lot anymore, and I know that’s a symptom of moving on. I incorrecly assume this is because we weren’t incredibly close. That’s not true.
In reality, I don’t think of her because she reminds me of my loss of innocence. Others mourn, while I would rather forget. I still wish I could go back, sometimes, to when life was without problems, where we were still naive. Beka’s passing changed all of that. She did us a favor, in one way. She forced us to grow up.
When I think about it, though, I DO miss her. I can’t help it. It’s ultimately her lasting legacy. We miss her an awful lot, but we have to move on. Not without her, but in honor of her.
It’s hard. It’s still hard.
Now, here I sit. Nine years and one day after the fact. And I still haven’t gotten her that beer.