When we were very young, there was talk of war in the desert.
I can remember being eleven-years-old, watching the attacks on September 11, 2001, knowing that something enormous and horrifying had happened. Looking at the faces of my teachers, my parents, the newscasters, the smoking, smoldering faces of those towers and knowing that something enormous was going to happen.
I cannot remember the first time I met Austin, but I do remember him at eleven-years-old. We would meet in the mornings, he would sit at the table with his backpack on and I would rest my head on my lunchbox. We would walk home through cornfields, across little streams, through other peoples’ yards. We had existential eleven-year-old conversations, which were often about our futures and the treasures that would certainly be waiting for us there. Even back then, Austin said he was going to join the Air Force. Never in my life have I had as much confidence as when I was eleven-years-old.
When Austin turned seventeen-years-old, he signed his final contract with the Air Force. He sat down at the lunch table we shared, slumped over under the weight of adolescence, and announced without great ceremony that he had officially signed up. He was unsure if that was what he truly wanted to do, but he didn’t want to be poor for the rest of his life, he said. The fearlessness of young childhood had waned.
He went to Texas for basic training and then moved to Georgia. Not long after he was stationed in Georgia, he said he was being deployed to Afghanistan. When he told me, I became sick in my stomach and my heart. It felt like we had just left high school. The reason it felt that way was because we had in fact just left high school. Afghanistan already? War? Already?
Austin always had a tremendous taste for adventure. I think that might have been one of the reasons he signed up for the Air Force. Or, at the very least, one of the reasons he volunteered for the mission in Afghanistan. I believe he also thought it was a brave thing to do, something important that commanded respect.
Austin received two days of leave before he shipped off, and so he came home to see his friends and family. He wanted to do something grand. So we got tattoos. One last ridiculous, spontaneous thing we could do together before this kid marched off to war, a memory he could hold on to when things became dark and difficult. We stayed up all night figuring out the exact right phrase to get impulsively tattooed on our young skin. We stopped in tattoo parlor after tattoo parlor, asking if they would stay open a little later to help us out. Austin was going to Afghanistan in the morning, so it could not wait. After a couple rejections, we found a place with two artists who sighed, shrugged, and agreed. Austin paid them double what they asked. We got our first tattoos: “Si vales valeo”–If you are well, I am well.
The next day, after a great many hugs, he left.
We wrote each other. They were long, lovely letters filled with inane details of our daily lives, and existential conversations that had since become very adult–wondering what would make our time on Earth meaningful, wondering if we would ever figure that out, wondering if we would ever be happy or ever be free from money or shitty jobs, wondering if there was truly any more mystery left in the world. We talked about the past, and we talked about our plans for the future.
When we were very young, we went to war. And then the war never stopped. We grew older, and the war was waiting for us, too, right on our doorsteps. It was there, waiting for us in blue uniforms, with tragic, lowered eyes and muttered apologies.
On May 3, 2010, Austin committed suicide while deployed in Afghanistan.
His death was indescribably painful. The aftermath of it–the perplexity and intrigue, the questions from his family, friends, the Air Force and people who barely knew him. Every day was a new struggle. Every day there was another internal monster that I had to battle and destroy. Anger was a way of life. It was easier to be angry than sad. I was stifled creatively. Grief is terrible and colossal, untamable and unpredictable.
Austin was only nineteen-years-old when he took his own life. Just a kid. Forever a child.
Austin is the reason for this blog. I will never have a tearful reunion with him in an airport as I’ve always imagined, but I will continue to give life and purpose to our love and friendship. With The Beginning After Project, I hope to keep him alive in some way, to memorialize him, to give both of our lives meaning, and to ensure that he did not die in vain.
“We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.”