There are two dates that strike a nerve with me every year: June 7 is the day Rickey was born; August 3 is the day he died.
Rickey and I had a conversation sometime in 2001 or 2002, where we mused over the fact that not only do you pass your birthday every year, but every year you also pass your deathday. It wasn't a groundbreaking revelation, of course. And though I have wondered about it - like I am sure everyone has - I'm not generally one of morbid nature, where I regularly mull over what date I will die or what day of the week it will be. Rickey and I just didn't realize - as if you ever could - back when we had that conversation regarding the earnest curiosity and wonder of the one inevitability faced by all, that his death year would be so soon.
It was 2003, and it was a Sunday.
Life without Rickey has been what I had realized that it would eventually be. On some level, I realized it that day in August when I learned he was gone. That day and over the subsequent weeks and months, I could not mentally grasp the idea of not being able to see him, touch him or talk to him ever again. But I also could not comprehend a world where months and years would go by in which he did not exist, and I would be in that world, and I would be ok.
I would eventually be ok, and that is what pissed me off so much after he died. I would imagine a time when I hadn't seen him or talked to him in years. I knew a time would come when I would be able to remember him without crying. And I hated knowing that this would become my world. And as I had imagined it back then, it is the world I live in now. I have not seen him or talked to him in years. And though I have accepted this in order to exist sanely in this new world, it still doesn't feel natural to live a life in which he has no fundamental influence.
The most common parts of my life were suddenly unfamiliar, even from just brushing my teeth or my hair to simply driving down the street. Everything seemed magnified, more deliberate, and required more effort as if immense pain hones all of your senses and blurs the big picture at the same time ... because I distinctly remember patches of moments from those weeks immediately following his death, but my general recollection of those weeks overall is hazy ... and dark. Like I remember opening my eyes once - a few days after the funeral - not knowing how long I had been asleep, and seeing the evening shadows cast across my room. Then, it seems like only moments later that my mother was coming in to ask if I wanted to eat a little breakfast.
Maybe I will live to be a very old woman in this world without Rickey, and I hate the idea of his life becoming more distant. Decades may pass in which I will have existed in this unnatural place, where every time something new or exciting happens, I will have that instantaneous urge to tell Rickey about it before I realize I can't. That's the part that makes me simultaneously appreciate and loathe being in this place where I knew I would eventually be - where I am actually ok and Rickey is a memory.
The strength eventually came to get out of bed every morning and put one foot in front of the other - without my mother's sympathetic embrace. And I learned to accept that the darkness would linger. And time began to help me remember that I love this life despite the circumstances. I would eventually know that there were still good times to be had, and I truly believe that as long as I live, so does he.
Today Rickey would have been 31. And I want to write about what life was like with Rickey.
When I spoke on behalf of Rickey at the Memorial Tree Planting Ceremony for students at our university who had passed away during that academic year, I had wished that I had some words of wisdom to vindicate the meaning of life and to soften the tragic blow of an untimely death such as his. But at that time in my life as a recent college graduate entering a "real world" that suddenly felt like a fifth dimension, I was still trying to simply understand that if I dialed his cell, he was not going to answer it.
Instead I decided that day to share some of my favorite memories, and I balled all the way through it. I could not look at any spot on that campus and not see a memory of Rickey. Some days it was comforting and other days, it could be quite maddening. As college sweethearts, we were probably among the goofiest of couples, with a lot of characteristics that might seem unlikely of a college basketball player and a sorority chapter president. Common acquaintances might have often been surprised to discover that we were both big dorks. Needless to say, there are a lot of silly memories from which I could chose.
Next to a tree in front of Brown Cafeteria is where Rickey was chasing me and I tripped over my own two feet and twisted my ankle; we had only known each other for a few days, and I had been teasing him in a botched attempt to be sexy and flirty. And if you walk about midway up the stairs from Brown Cafeteria to Buchanan Hall, Rickey and I once sat there and looked for four-leaf clovers. Under the Alumni Tower, there is a little square plaque in the bricks, and we would race to see who could step on it first. When it snowed, a few accomplices once joined us in stealing lunch trays from Dodson Cafeteria and went sledding on the hill behind Helder Hall. There was a huge snowball fight that same night in the lobby of Leatherwood Hall, which is just adjacent to that hill.
Our first kiss was also in Leatherwood. When I kissed him the first time, he leaned his head back with his eyes closed and a little grin on his face. He took a deep breath and paused. Then, he looked back down at me and said, "Kiss me again." After having chased me for seven months, he acted as if that one little kiss was the ultimate grand prize. And it was kind of romantic even though we were hiding in the first floor unisex bathroom (in the main lobby) from the twins, Jonas and Jarvis. They were his college basketball teammates, who later transferred to Georgia, and were well-known throughout campus for their pranks. The twins and other friends were involved in whatever silly cat-and-mouse-ish diversion we'd come up with that day, and when we finally came out of hiding, the twins kept asking Rickey why he had such a goofy look on his face.
Cullowhee is in the middle of no where so we had to be creative in entertaining ourselves. We had water gun fights. We played pranks. The men’s basketball team once got in trouble for playing hide-n-go-seek in the basement of Hunter Library during study hall. Another time, some of his teammates caught us playing follow-the-leader around Reid Gym. After being witness to this game, they never let Rickey live it down. However, one of the things that his teammates never knew was that he once let me apply a complete line of cosmetics to his face. After one look in the mirror, he demanded that I immediately take it off.
We took a chessboard on every road trip, whether it was to the waterfalls just beyond Cashiers (NC) or to the beach at Tybee Island (SC). We had our own rule for playing Scrabble. The rule was that you couldn’t make real words, but the word had to sound like it was real. We had a dictionary handy just to make sure that certain words we came up with didn’t actually exist. One time I created the word “W-A-R-P-T-H” and Rickey disqualified it because he said it was just Captain Kirk with a lisp.
We sat on the bricks outside of Dodson Cafeteria. We ate our lunches on the balcony of the University Center. We once ran out of gasoline in front of Scott Hall. We took long walks and sat on many of the benches sprinkled throughout the grounds, and there are so many memories all over that university that sometimes the random conversations we once had sort of echoed in my mind from different corners of campus.
Our favorite movie was "Stir of Echoes" because we liked to laugh at the part where Kevin Bacon tells his wife that the water is softening up the dirt. We used to rewind that part over and over. If one watches that movie and has the same corny sense of humor that Rickey and I share, then it is apparent why we think it is so funny.
In front of friends and even acquaintances, we would randomly act as if we could communicate with each other using this high-pitched alien language from the movie "Galaxy Quest." We would try to finish each other’s sentences in random ways that didn’t make any sense at all, and we loved to purposely use erratic vocabulary completely out of context or just plain wrong. For example, he once referred to a tasty hamburger as being so comatosed.
Rickey’s mom was always telling us how crazy we were, but there aren’t only memories that just make me laugh. I remember sitting on the hood of my car overlooking the view of campus from the Cullowhee Airport and talking for hours. He was one of very few people who would listen to me talk for lengthy periods about astronomy. We debated political and social topics. We talked about our families. We talked about our dreams. We talked about life.
Rickey and I dated for over three years, but we fought a losing battle to the long distance (after he left school) and an addiction to prescription pain medication that started after a basketball injury in his senior year and would ultimately take his life. We had a trying fourth year in which we struggled to salvage our relationship, and my biggest regret is that we spent a majority of that last year arguing and saying things to each other that we didn’t really mean. I know that we never meant any of the things we said because we always called each other back within a day - or even an hour - to apologize.
There are certain people that you love in such a way that you feel like you can say certain things to them – no matter how hurtful – but you would not tolerate it coming from anyone else. I guess that is why no matter how hard things got, we wouldn’t let our bridges burn. In some ways, you feel like you can say anything without doing permanent damage, which you never realize is more wrong than when you can no longer say you're sorry.
However, during the months following Rickey's death, I began to see that the true heartbreak of those arguments is not so much that we argued, but that I realize now that he was right over half the time. I was just so selfish with this tunnel-vision ambition that made me too self-absorbed to notice. I was also naïve about the frailty of life and even though I thought I knew a lot, I did not truly understand the old cliché of not appreciating something until it is gone. Despite all of this, I also realize that I am so lucky because I had some great years with Rickey.
Rickey loved me more in four years than some people ever love anyone in a lifetime, and it seemed like everyone knew it because he threw it out in the open and hid it from no one. During the seven months it took him to get me to go out with him, he used so many random, public tactics to get my attention - these tactics often involved the recruitment and participation of his teammates, friends or even fellow students he barely knew. He once picked flowers off of the university lawn and dropped to his knees at my feet in front of a packed student quad. I don't know if he felt no shame in rejection or if he was just so sure he would eventually get me. After awhile, I knew that he would, too ... and, I don't know if this will make any sense, but he had made the chase so flattering that the "foreplay" of a relationship was almost too much fun to give in to being "caught."
One of the last two memories that I wanted to share at the Memorial Tree Planting Ceremony was right around the time that we had first met. I was walking past Simply T’s on my way to class, and Rickey was walking from Brown Cafeteria. He had on some baggy jeans and a dark green sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his wave cap. He walked along, bobbing his head to the beat of the music in his headphones, and in passing, we stopped momentarily and I asked him what he was listening to. I had expected him to mention someone like Pastor Troy or his favorite rapper, Tupac, but when he pulled the headphone away from his left ear, I heard the boys of N’Sync singing “Bye, bye, bye …”
Rickey looked at people the way he looked at music, with an open-mind, acceptance and appreciation.
The other memory was when he wanted to try my roommate’s cereal. He had never had Waffle Crisps before, so he poured himself a bowl, added the milk and took a spoonful. He immediately got this wide-eyed, astonished look on his face and exclaimed, “I have been looking for a cereal like this my whole life!”
Rickey enjoyed the little things even more than the big things, from the taste of cereal to lying in the grass by the creek or creating special ways to say that he cared. I know, because not only did he notice when the little things happened, which is a knack that few people have, but he also went out of his way to do the little things for those he loved.
After sharing these memories at the Memorial Tree Planting Ceremony in 2004, Rickey's father thanked me for introducing him to a side of his son that he had never known. Rickey took with him a side of me that others may never know, but I suppose the only thing that matters for us in the end is that we once existed.