Revisiting Sorrow 17 Years Later

In this post I’m touching on something extremely personal, and something I don’t talk about much since it’s not the most pleasant of topics. But I’ve been drawn to type it out as I’ve been thinking about it more as June 5th approaches. There’s no rhyme or reason here, no lesson. Just something to share.

I also want to clarify that this post consists of details from my own memory. I understand some of my former classmates and friends who also went through this event may be reading this, and have memories of their own. I also understand those same people probably have opinions of what they believe happened, but I believe I was privy to information most were not, due to my closeness to those involved. While I will be disclosing a few details of that information in this post, I won’t be explaining all of it.

When 2001 began, I was in the second semester of my freshman year in high school. My closest male friend at the time, Nick, had introduced me to his best friend, Jesse, who transferred to our school in the middle of the year, and who quickly joined my small circle of friends. Inside jokes were created, friendships were built. Jesse was shy, pretty quiet, but he adjusted well throughout the rest of the year. Because we weren’t old enough to have driver’s licenses at that age, long three-way phone calls between Nick, Jesse, and I were common. Most of the chats revolved around classes, homework, possible hang-out plans, and teasing him about his crush, my best girl friend, Elisa, who attended another high school and also had a crush on him.

Closer to the end of the year, Jesse started missing school more than a normal teenager would, but he would give the excuse that he was sick, or not even give a straight answer. He seemed nervous to say, and it almost looked as if he were hiding something. Nick and I were a bit puzzled, but didn’t think much of it, and it wasn’t our business so we didn’t press him.

Then finals week arrived, and Jesse was absent from classes again. Nick hadn’t heard from or seen him, and neither had any of our friends. Two school days passed without incident, and I got home around my usual time (3 p.m.) that Tuesday, June 5th. I hadn’t been inside long when the phone rang, and caller ID showed Nick’s number. I picked up the phone to a solemn greeting and pauses between words as he tried to explain what had happened without breaking down.

I can’t type out the conversation as I remember it. It’s too difficult and my brain attempts to shut down each I try hitting the keyboard. But here’s a short generalization of the information I received.

Jesse was dead, and had died that day. He had been found in the garage of his home, and had been doused in gasoline and set on fire.

Police allegedly had ruled it a suicide, at least at first, but in our hearts Nick and I knew better, and details that came to light while we both sobbed on the phone made it even more clear our friend had been murdered. I was never aware of any sort of investigation into the incident after that day, and as far as we knew the case was closed.

I recall hanging up with Nick and crumpling to the floor in tears, not knowing how to handle what I was dealing with. I remember blurry number buttons as I dialed Elisa, and barely uttering the words of Jesse’s death to her as I struggled to not choke on the lump in my throat. She lasted maybe two or three minutes before she hung up, overcome with emotion. My mom arrived home from work soon after and I ran to her crying, saying over and over that Jesse was dead.

Imagine trying to get up the next morning and having to focus on taking exams. Imagine walking through the school doors early the next day with your world changed, and your group of friends sitting around a table, unable to speak and barely able to make eye contact with each other because the tears in their eyes would spill over. Imagine each one of those friends bringing something special with them as a token of their own relationship with Jesse.

That morning I had my Physical Science exam, and Jesse was meant to be in it too. When the teacher was passing out papers for us to begin, he asked the class where Jesse was as he checked the clock on the wall. By that time word was spreading, and I had to look away from my teacher’s face when he registered the news someone in the room muttered.

Visitation was a couple of days after the phone call from Nick that will stick with me for the rest of my life. The casket was closed. I barely remember the funeral, but remember the walk with Elisa from the church to the cemetery next door, and placing my own white rose next to hers on the site. I remember Nick helping carry the casket. I remember waiting months to see a grave stone, and placing more single white roses on it every so often afterward. I still associate white roses with Jesse.

It’s been years since I visited the grave site, but I think of Jesse from time to time, about what he would have done after high school, what career he’d have, and where in his life he would be now, at 32 years old. I also wonder if and how much his death shaped the lives of others in our group of friends. It sucks that 2001 was a time when records weren’t recorded online, and a time when I didn’t have a camera. I have no photos of him besides the original obit clipping from the newspaper.

Unfortunately Jesse’s passing was the first of a few more of my former high school classmates during and after high school, but his prepared me for the others. Death is never easy to face, but hopefully someday we’ll all be reunited with those we love.

Personally, I can’t wait to see him again.

—K

About Karin

Journalist, singer, reader, movie fanatic, photography buff, GVSU alum, wanna-be-Brit, Crohn's fighter, Coca-Cola addict, animal lover, not a kid person, hater of winter, Michigander
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