Before dawn on the morning of my nineteenth birthday, I returned back to my temporary home at the Arizona campus of the Biosphere II, reveling in the high from a roadtrip to Las Vegas with some of my new friends. My email box and answering machine were both full. Prideful, I thought that everyone from back home in New York had reached out to share birthday wishes. But instead, all of the messages were somber and the same: one of my close childhood friends, and eventual university classmate, had been murdered in her dorm room.
In an instant, my world changed. I ran out of my front door and collapsed on my belly onto the cold, hard ground of the desert. I wailed in a way that I had never heard another human cry. The sound was one that I hadn’t even known my body was capable of creating.
Kathleen’s death was not an accident. She didn’t die in a car crash, or from a disease. I knew how to cope with those “acceptable” forms of death. Instead, Kathleen’s boyfriend viciously slit her throat with a dirty kitchen knife. In his realization of his act of malice, he cowardly threw himself in front of a subway train. And the rest of the world, her family, his family, and the friends they had respectively made through the years were left to live with an image of the single most horrific act one human can afflict on another.
Every birthday I’ve had since is bittersweet. Each time I earn a new age, I think that it’s one more that Kathleen never gets to have. And there is no reason why I am privileged to continue to age, and she is not. Afterall, we lived very similar lives: we grew up in the same suburban neighborhood, attended the same high school, played on the same sports teams, chose to go to university together, and even picked the same classes to take so that we may study together. But I got to graduate. Kathleen did not.
A few years later, I suffered my own personal hell at the hands of an evil man. I thought for sure that any one of his violent rages would end in my death. But instead of allowing myself to feel victimized as I was, I felt ashamed because I thought that I had somehow let Kathleen down. How did I learn nothing from her murder? How could I have had such hubris that I thought it would never happen to me? Her death was bad enough, but if I gained no insight from it, it was truly in vain.
My ten-year high school reunion was this year. No one mentioned Kathleen. In fact, other than back at the funeral, none of us had ever discussed it. I woke up the next morning, embarrassed that we had not done so much as a small “in memoriam” for such a beloved member of our class. I couldn’t imagine that I was the only one who still carried the scars of the tragedy.
But then something amazing happened. Back home in my New York City apartment, the phone rang and my caller id showed that it was one of my old classmates, Jen. And she wanted to talk about Kathleen. We had fallen out of touch soon after the funeral because neither one of us could deal with continuing a friendship without Kathleen rounding out the group.
I told Jen about my personal abusive experience, and about my shame. And Jen told me that she had felt shame for not seeing the signs of problems before the murder, and for not talking about Kathleen with anyone, not even her husband. She was starting a program to prevent domestic violence against women, and to empower high school girls before they left for college and were more vulnerable to bad relationships. And I had written a book chronicling my experience, as a cautionary tale to tell the world. I told her that people had advised me not to use my real name in publishing the book, because my story was so gruesome. But I won’t heed that advise, because I’m proud to be a survivor.
Hours later, Jen and I finally hung up the phone. For the first time in a long time, I felt okay. The storm cloud over my head was lifting, if only slightly. Because I had talked about Kathleen’s death, and my survivors’ guilt with someone who felt the same pain that I did. Together, Jen and I confronted the demon of the bad memory, and shared stories of good ones we were carrying of Kathleen.
I believe that life is a transient privilege. I believe that I am accountable for the consequences of my actions. Like all people, I make choices that I can’t explain. And sometimes results are beyond my control. But each day I am humbled by the fact that I see a new dawn, when many people don’t have that luxury. It is my duty, then, to earn the privilege of life. It is the most arduous task I can imagine, and I do it daily. Every day, I bear witness to my life. There are atrocities, and horrific memories, and wonderful new experiences, and frequent
glimmers of beauty. And in my life, I must own all of it. This I believe.