By Ariel Rivera-Bernath
It’s been six years since Austin committed suicide while stationed near the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan. He was nineteen-years-old.
I thought that maybe I would try something new this year and treat this day like any other day. For the past six years, I have always dropped everything on this day to mourn his death and to try to celebrate life. On the year anniversary of his death, my two best friends picked me up in Philadelphia where I was living at the time. It was the middle of the night, and we drove to the Jersey Shore to watch the sunrise. Austin always wanted to do that. After that beautiful experience with two of my most beloved people, I remember thinking in a mixture of anger and sadness and happiness, “Fuck you, Austin. You’re really missing out.”
I thought maybe this year, six years later, this day would be like any other day.
But, it’s like muscle memory. For the past two weeks, I have been so overcome with anxiety, so weighed down with dread. It’s as if every Spring I subconsciously anticipate experiencing the horror that happened six years ago. When I take a breath and try to think about where my extreme discomfort is coming from, I realize—it’s that time of year again. Muscle memory.
I considered treating this day like any other day because it seems that I have learned to integrate this tragedy so seamlessly into my everyday life that I hardly feel it anymore.
Two or three years ago, I would have never thought I would say or feel something like that. Two or three years ago, I was still crying every other night over it. I was still completely wounded, devastated. Self-destructive. Angry. Nearly comatose, or so it feels looking back.
But with anything in life, I suppose, this has been normalized. What else are you going to do about it? Build a time machine? Actually become comatose?
Every once in a while, I think about how badly I wish I could share a joke or opinion with him. When I realize that I will never get a chance to do that again, I get overwhelmed. Every once in a while, I’ll panic when I remember that I am never, ever going to see him or hear his voice again. Every once in a while, I’ll listen to a certain song (like Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” a song that I can hardly listen to, even on my best days) and sink so deeply, I’m sure I’ll drown. But this doesn’t happen as often as it used to. These moments, when they do come, are brief.
I am still shocked and amazed that I am able to say that. It wasn’t that long ago that I was certain that I would never escape from the crushing boulder of my anger and grief.
In some ways, I miss that grief. It sounds strange, maybe even backwards. There was something comforting about owning it. It was so reliable. If I turned around, I could guarantee it would always be there to embrace me and remind me that, no matter what happened—good or bad—everything is overshadowed by this thing. And the more that grief weighed, the hotter that pain seared, I knew that Austin was close. It was the last memory I have of him. It was nice to know that his memory, no matter how horrifying, was close by and wouldn’t fade away.
I still remember his laugh, which was incredible loud and startling and hilarious. I still remember his pale skin, green eyes, and weak mustache. I still remember the sound of his voice when he called to tell me where he was being deployed, all choked up with fear. I still remember those warm, sunny school day afternoons spent eating lunch, and seeing him walk away, claiming that it was too nice a day to spend inside. I still remember riding on the ski club bus to Blue Mountain with him when we were eleven-years-old.
These days, I feel like Austin has stopped haunting me. I no longer feel his ghost clinging to me like a cold, wet, inescapable dampness.
I am able to, and I am forced to think about other things. Good things like dogs, cookouts, beer, bikes, road trips, promotions. Bad things like flat tires, break-ups, spending too much money, homesickness, restlessness. In comparison, the bad things are never that bad and the good things are always spectacular.
One thing I can say is that, in commemorating his death every year, I feel the sting of my life magnified. I see that another year has passed and I am still conscious, and I’m still healthy, and I still have my friends and family. And my life has multiplied and gotten so much bigger than it was when I was twenty-years-old.
I’m sad that Austin’s life hasn’t gotten bigger along with mine and his other friends’. It’s a new kind of sadness. It’s a sadness for the fact that he is totally missing out. In a lot of ways, it’s his fault because he took his own life, and that’s what makes it terrible. In a lot of ways, it’s not his fault because he was just a kid sent off to war, and that’s what makes it worse.
Austin took much of the joy out of my early twenties. Austin gave me a lot of perspective and freedom that others did not have at that age. Austin giveth, and Austin taketh away.
Maybe it’s a good thing to take a day out of the year to stop and think about what that trauma has meant in my life. To stop and consider the progress I have made, that we’ve all made. To stop and consider how we’re here, we survived it somehow even when I was sure none of us would. To think about all of the people in my life who were there to help me survive—the friends who were there on the front-lines in the days and weeks following his death, the friends who I met later on who always understood and let me lose it when I needed to, the friends who’ve been there since childhood and shared common memories, the family who gave me strength and resilience.
And, perhaps most profoundly, to stop and consider all of the new things that have happened that have absolutely nothing to do with Austin’s suicide.
Now my life has finally started to feel like it’s just…mine.