Thursday, April 10, 2014

Five Words That Changed My Life

March 20, 2014, about noon

"Have you heard about Julian?"

It was my mother calling. I was heading out to get a curtain rod from the garage in preparation for completing a project I'd been fussing with for months.

The day before, my nephew, Julian, had rear-ended a friend on his way to school. He was uninjured, but his car was toast. He had simply been following a bit too close and a bit too mindlessly.

This day, I had been following news of an accident on my Twitter feed. It didn't immediately occur to me to wonder about my family. Julian's car was wrecked; he certainly wasn't driving himself to school.

But when I heard my mother's question, I knew. I knew the fatality accident in my Twitter feed was my nephew. He had taken the family van to school. He had headed out a different route than usual. He made a terrible mistake. Now he was gone.

Even writing these words three weeks later is gut-wrenching. And yet, it's an event that has changed me forever. It will affect me the rest of my life. It must be addressed.

Julian is my sister's oldest son. He had several health concerns when he was young, and it led him to be a cautious young man. Ever concerned about his own mortality, he would peruse the internet and diagnose himself with a variety of ailments. He was on the verge of achieving Eagle Scout (disclaimer: I know little to nothing about the Boy Scouts; yesterday, when my other nephew was talking about now being a "Tender Foot," I congratulated him on his tender feet). He was moved greatly by music, and attended church regularly for the music. He could've done without the sermon. He played guitar and was learning to play the mandolin. He was well on his way to college, already having been "scouted" by several schools. He was a science kid, politically aware, and passionate about his beliefs. As my son said of him at the Celebration of Life, "He was the only kid I know who could build a computer, then tie it up with rope and hang it in a tree to keep it safe from bears."

And now, he is gone.

We will never know Julian's side of the story. We cannot ask him why he crossed the double yellow line into oncoming traffic. Perhaps he was blinded by the rising sun, perhaps he overreacted to something happening in front of him, perhaps a family of black widow spiders fell out of the headliner and were dancing the Macarena in his lap. We'll never know. We do know he wasn't using his phone. Based on my knowledge of who he was, I don't believe it was a simple matter of inattention.

There's nothing to point to for "why" this happened. "Why?" is an imperfect question without an answer. It did happen. It isn't a punishment or a lesson. It just is.

This is a hard thing to live with. My sister's analogy is perfect: it's like the broken-off pieces are floating around in my body, and they occasionally slice. Sometimes the slices are worse than other times. And yet, life goes on. The world still turns. The sun still rises. People ask "how are you?" not truly interested in the answer.

It is the sort of moment that brings up various thoughts. For me, I had the oddest guilt to wrestle with. For many days, I felt true guilt for not somehow having been there, for not being the one driving the truck going the other direction that Julian collided with. As if, by being there, I could have changed the outcome. Maybe I could have avoided the impact, or changed the way the vehicles collided. It's a fantasy of control I cannot possibly fulfill. I wallowed in it for several days before I was able to set it aside.

I have learned an important thing about myself: I love my sister's children with a fierce passion only slightly outmatched by my love for my own children (mine are grown, so it's a little different than it was when they were young). I am grateful to have started spending more time with my sister and her family, starting before Julian's accident. My niece started singing with the church's youth choir, and selected a solo for the concert in June. I've been spending time with her working on her song. I will also be making her a dress (I hope to make my sister a matching one). I try to spend a little time with my nephew when I'm there, to at least say hi and make sure he knows I love him.

I wish this pain could be healed, but I also welcome it, for it keeps Julian ever present in my heart and mind. The pain of loss is the pain of love. I will be forever grateful to have known him, to have had him as my nephew, and I am so proud of the young man he was.

So, if you see me crying (this is the first time in my life I haven't been embarrassed to be seen crying), you understand why. If I seem melancholy and quiet, you know it's because I am recalling my nephew fondly. And don't be afraid to talk to me, to ask me questions about Julian, because it might make me cry. I'm going to cry anyway.

And, dear readers, I have this charge for you: Be kind to one another. Everyone makes mistakes, says things they regret, does things thoughtlessly. On the road, remember sometimes it's someone else's mistake, sometimes it's yours. Be vigilant, be careful, and above all, be forgiving and compassionate.


  1. Oh, Valerie, here's a hug; thank you for sharing with us!

  2. beautiful . . . you are a special auntie . . .