I lived and died on the approval of others. Frequently, I would skip events because I was worried I would have no one to talk to, or I wouldn't fit in. Maybe this is standard wiring for your early teenage years, but I felt like everyone else was a part of something that I wasn't quite sure I was cool enough to be a part of.
My family moved to the next county over the summer before my eighth grade year. I remember my anxiety kicking up a notch. Even though I had left a larger school that was easier to get lost in, I was now going to be in a school where most of the kids had known each other since finger-painting was on the lesson plans. This freaked me out. Realistically, I had just found some friends back home that I felt at ease with, and now I was going to be uprooted and planted into foreign soil. My faulty self-image was completely unprepared for this.
The family mini-van pulled out of the home I had grown up in and wheeled its way into unfamiliar territory. We passed my friend Derrick's house, where I had spent many afternoons attempting to play soccer and lofting pinecones at each other's heads. Then, we passed the only two schools that I had ever known. When you are young, familiarity is the spice of life. It always felt like the worlds far away were far away for a reason. Maybe they held something dangerous and unwanted for your life, or you just chemically wouldn't match up with the species habitating there. I remember having a dream about moving. I dreamt that once we arrived at our new home, the new neighbors came over to meet us. The crazy thing was they were fish people, with gills on their necks, wearing odd bubble masks just so they could breathe. I'm fairly certain my anxiety, and fear my parents might have my head examined, kept me from warning anyone about our impending date with our fish neighbors. As the van wheeled us closer to our new home, I just hoped that they were friendly and that they had a fish son my age I could learn aquatic arts from.
The first few weeks at the new place were not bad. We actually lived in a neighborhood where I could ride my bike in the streets without becoming a hood ornament or windshield fodder. School was even tolerable. After a week or so, I did get tired of eating lunch by myself. I'm sure I only made it worse for myself by choosing to sit alone. Who wants to eat with the loner, new kid who speaks to no one but himself? Not me. So, in gym class one morning, I did something I had never done before, I struck up a conversation with a someone I had never spoken to in my life. Weird concept, huh?
Turns out this dude, Chris, who shared my homeroom class, amongst other classes, was in the same boat as me. He was new to the neighborhood and shared the same social anxiety I did. I think we shocked each other that we held a conversation. I remember feeling relieved for the first time in months. I had proven, in spite of my self-loathing, I could make new friends in a new place. In fact, we proved over the next few weeks to be somewhat inseparable. We could make fun of our sweaty gym teacher, who we were sure had come straight from a sitcom, and talk about our respective homelands as if they were mystical lands of lore.
A few weeks later, Chris didn't show up to school. Now, if you understand anything about social anxiety, you know that those suffering from it are like nocturnal creatures - we get comfortable being in our place and if you shine the light on our solitude, we scatter. So I coped the only way I knew how, become even more invisible. Missing a day or two of school is no big deal, but after a week and a half, I needed some answers. Mrs. Rohacek, my homeroom teacher, was one of the sweetest ladies on the planet. She seemed to understand my awkward nature and let her motherly instincts take over. She would laugh at my stupid side jokes and was there for support. So, I asked her where my buddy Chris had been. I still vividly remember the look that crossed her face. The jovial smile on her face slowly slipped back, and her eyes looked up as if she was trying to carefully navigate through a room of priceless crystals. She waited until the room emptied with her hand on my shoulder. I just stood there motionless, waiting for one of her silly science jokes to wipe away the uneasiness. The truth was that Chris had a rare disease, the name of which I can not remember, which was taking its toll on him. She had been sending him his homework for the last week, because he wasn't able to really be outside for long periods of time. Plus, his immune system was too weak to be around others. Needless to say, I was devastated. Granted, I had only been friends with him for a few short weeks, but we were far too young to be worrying about death walking into the room and ruining the party.
I went home in a daze and kind of hid in my room to avoid the questions that loving parents normally ask. 'How was your day?' was one of the last things I wanted to hear. The weeks passed slower and my loner status grew with the passing days. I even juggled the awful and misplaced thought that my friendship might be toxic.
Mrs. Rohacek asked me to stay after class a few weeks later. I chose to hinge my hopes on naivety and pretend I had no clue what she was going to say to me. Even my eighth grade mind had connected the dots before she could speak. Her kind eyes told more than could be said. With her hand on my shoulder, I learned that my friend had fought the good fight, but, in the end, he had to wave the white flag. She waited with me in silence until her next class started to file in. "He was lucky to have a good friend like you", she whispered as she slowly slipped from my side, and helped guide me out of the classroom. Just like that, I was transparent again. The world spinning rhythmically didn't seem to matter to me. The truth about good friendships is that they help us find our place. We need people in our lives to help quell our riot-inducing selves. Without friends and family to quiet the insecurities rolling around in our heads, we are apt to pummel ourselves with fists of self-loathing and self-pity. It is a fight that no one wins.
I remember my parents telling me a story about my uncle. He had just gotten divorced from a lady that he had loved. It hit him like a ton of bricks, so much so, that he got rid of everything else in his life and moved up to a farm in North Carolina and grew a beard. Not normally a big deal, in fact, I happen to approve of beards. But, in this case, all of these radical changes were evidence that he lost his self-worth in the divorce and had relegated himself to isolation for the remainder of his years. My dad was very concerned and went on several occasions to try and pry his brother out of his depressed state. It took a while, but my uncle recovered and moved back to civilization. I suppose he just needed time, and love, to realize his worth.
This was where I was now. After Chris' passing, I dealt with my sorrow through isolation and drawing. I would sit for hours drawing or just trying to distract myself from reality. I suppose it would have been a harder trance to break had we had the time to become closer friends, but, that young in life, it was still a hard pill to swallow.
I woke up one morning and realized that I had a lot of things in life to be thankful for. And even though Chris would not get to see this morning, I would make the best of it. I would talk to people and try to make friends. I would stop just existing and make the best of each and every breath. I'm confident the ones that we have lost don't hate us for living in the days we are gifted. I found through all of this that, I belong on this earth. Even with all of my insecurities and hang-ups, I have worth. I am blessed to have friends and family that reaffirm this with their presence.
Think about this, the sunrises and sunsets are not created just as a backdrop for the birds to sing against. The radiant rays of sunshine that breach the horizon are meant for our eyes to see, for our faces to feel the warmth. Know this: you belong here. You are beautifully and wonderfully made. Sometimes we just need a friendly reminder. Sometimes we just need to remember to live the sunrises and sunsets, and everywhere in between, to their fullest.