I’m sitting at a coffee shop in New Orleans, fielding a client with a PR crisis, another client with a last minute blog request, and three upcoming afternoon calls when my phone dings.
Ready to release a heavy sigh – what can it possibly be now – I peer down reluctantly and read six familiar names on my screen: my high school crew. Humans I’ve known since I had buck teeth and braces.
I smile. No matter how much time passes, when I see their names together in a text, it inevitably brings me right back to the long-ago years: group texts about which party or restaurant, whose house we were going to, and our weekend plans.
“When y’all gonna be in town for the holidays?” starts the group chain.
The texts stream in:
“I’m not coming this year. Husband asked to see his family this year.”
“N has to work, we won’t be there until the 23rd and leave the 26th.”
“I’ll be there from the 18-26th!”
Between calls, I respond:
“I’ll be there Saturday to have my first Christmas with my mom’s family, but y’all know my parents sold their house so now I dunno how long I’ll be in Fort Worth. Eventually, will have to go back to Austin. Hope to see you guys, lemme know if we wanna have a night out!”
My closest friend in the group texts just me, directly:
“Are you going to Bradley’s family thing?”
I now let out an audible sigh. Of course, I’ll be going. But I still sigh.
Every year, “Bradley’s thing” takes place on the 23rd: a dinner hosted by his parents for the past 14 years since his death in 2007. It’s sweet. It’s sentimental. And I have yet to figure out how to participate without letting it exhaust me.
If I’m being honest, I have yet to figure out how to go home to Fort Worth for the holidays without experiencing emotional whiplash.
A little context: I should preface that ‘victim-focused’ statement with the acknowledgement that I lived a fairly privileged, charmed adolescence. People have extremely challenging childhoods, full of trauma and dysfunctional familial systems. I didn’t. I was popular in high school, easygoing (read: socially anxious and therefore agreed to whatever, whenever), and I cared a lot about being liked and validated.
I always had social plans, and was never really excluded. I had a group of friends worth sneaking out at 2 in the morning to merely sit and watch TV (at least we were together!) with the risk of getting grounded. Yet I spent my middle and high school years as an anxious mess, dealing with a growing eating disorder and an identity that shaped itself around the views and perceptions of other people.
Some would chalk all of this up to adolescence – and I don’t know that I’m all that different from many who go through similar experiences in that timeframe. But then Bradley died on the morning of September 15, 2007, our first month of college. And as trite and cliche as it may sound, everything changed.
Here’s where I get sentimental:
Bradley was magnetic as a boy; I have no doubt he would have been magnetic as an adult. Much like me, he cared deeply what people thought of him, but was much funnier than I ever could have been. In reflecting as an older woman, I often think our childhood bond was so strong given the shared familiarity in personality traits: the incessant need to be loved and give love.
At 2 in the morning at the University of Mississippi, Bradley – along with my other male friends from high school – decided to play a loose (drunken) game of “football” in the backyard of a frat house. In a series of still mysterious and unexplained circumstances, the ball got stuck in a massive oak tree. Bradley, in Wrangler jeans and a white button-down shirt, climbed up to get it.
As he descended the tree, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and the boys poking fun at him, the branch of the tree snapped. In the midst of their banter, Bradley fell and died.
It still boggles me, all these years later, that Bradley is really dead. It still makes no sense. The human brain is such a delicate shell, holding in the ferocity of our souls and spirits. Bradley was immediately pronounced brain dead, and 24 hours later his parents made the choice, surrounded by myself and my friends in that Memphis hospital, to remove him from life support.
Of course, my friends who witnessed it were traumatized, and the ease with which my high school crew communicated together almost entirely altered. C got into pills, and then heroin. B drunkenly crashed his car into a house later that year; he later quit school to go to rehab. T stopped getting together with any of us for years after Bradley’s burial. J felt like it was his fault: he still claims he was the one who told Bradley to climb the tree in the first place.
Then, there was R, and me in Arkansas. As kids, we were the original trio – Bradley, R, and me – and we were left together to figure out how to go on.
I don’t know if we handled it well, which is probably just a nice way of saying – I know we didn’t handle it well. We were messy apart but messier together, each of us with burgeoning addiction issues and my eating disorder now in full force. I think there came a point when R and I confused grief with love, and codependency with affection. But that’s another story, for another day.
As we aged, I believe our group of friends would have inevitably shifted, regardless of Bradley. But of course, the experience of Bradley’s death is now what defines that critical juncture in childhood. We were young and didn’t know how to grieve. We were Southern, from religious backgrounds, and more or less lived with a constant cultural pressure to “be fine” and “fake it til you make it.” In our version of the South, you don’t air dirty laundry. You “give it all to God.”
It was several messy years: messy actions and things said in drunken, unprocessed fury and pain. I don’t know that I ever had a chance to truly ‘deal’ with it in a healthy setting until I finally went to treatment for my eating disorder at 24 years old.
That same year I went to treatment, R and I stopped speaking completely. But every year since, we continue our tradition at Bradley’s parents’ house, carefully shifting past each other in the kitchen without making eye contact.
Some of us see each other. Some of us don’t. C got sober and became a dad. B is sober too, with two kids. I’m in recovery and live in a van, doing the “van life” thing.
We all turned out okay; we all turned out healthy. And we all continue to heal in our own ways, separately.
And so while we grew up and grew apart, we have this unspeakable tie that strings us together forever. And like the experiences of so many people who navigate familial or friend systems, it adds another layer of emotional complexity to the holidays.
I’ve never quite figured out how to balance the delicacy of nostalgia with an appreciation of the present. Life is short, I sometimes think: appreciate what you have when you have it. There’s always a singular moment when I look around the room at Bradley’s childhood home and my heart swells with pride at all of us: still there, still showing up all these years later. I’m struck with unconditional love for the humans in that room, and isn’t that what makes some of life’s tragedy worth living? For the moments you pick up your head and realize how fast it all can change: the unpredictability and shortness of everything.
I’m grateful for the life I had. And the life I have now, even when there's a metaphorical sense of violence in the ways we left it all. I sometimes fancy that emotional fatigue from the holidays is merely a byproduct of the art and beauty of humanity, of being able to feel and express love. And that I had to go through the eating disorder and grief to truly appreciate the smaller details in life.
As I write that, my phone dings again:
“Hey stranger,” C texts me. “You haven’t met my kid yet, you a**hole :) you wanna come by when you get in town? Rachel and I would love to see you. Bring the van. And, if you must, the stupid cat.”
Love: the foundation of our souls, and the greatest feeling any person can create and experience.
“Yeah, I’d love to meet your kiddo. I’ll text you Thursday.”
I climb back into my van, day-old coffee in the cupholder, and Bradley’s dirty baseball hat hanging loosely from the rearview mirror.
Perhaps there’s a usefulness to nostalgia: its powerful nature forces us to reflect on the meaning and purpose of our lives.
Maybe it helps us better navigate the future and move forward; maybe it even helps us to love differently – to notice the little things we love in another human. We belong to no one, I often think, and no one belongs to us.
I feel lucky to have been loved and to love, all throughout my life.
Beautiful birds fly ahead of me, making circles in the sky. As I churn along the I-10 highway to Texas, I find my way with them.
Perhaps they’ll follow me home.