Plunge

The screen door creaked and slammed shut. My parents’ footsteps were hurried as they hustled to meet Zach at the door. I turned in my chair. His football game should have ended two hours ago. Why was he so late? He stepped in, looking shaken, and immediately sat down on the worn church pew by the door.

memoir

The screen door creaked and slammed shut. My parents’ footsteps were hurried as they hustled to meet Zach at the door. I turned in my chair. His football game should have ended two hours ago. Why was he so late? He stepped in, looking shaken, and immediately sat down on the worn church pew by the door.

“Coach held us in the locker room because he wanted to tell us what happened to Mike. When he went down on the field, it was because his heart had stopped. They brought him to the emergency room, and he died.” Just like that. He said it so matter-of-factly. I couldn’t imagine that he was serious. My parents stared at him silently for a few moments, hoping he was kidding. But he was serious.

I was in the car with Mike just the previous week, sharing stories when it was our turn to drive for the football carpool. He was an incredible track athlete, physically years ahead of his age, so he hung out with the kids in our grade because he was more competitive with them than with his peers. I saw him in band rehearsal every day. Athletic banquets, carpools, football games- every memory with him flashed through my mind.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. Even if I had words to say there was no way I would have been able to voice them. We all sat silently for what seemed like forever. Eventually my mom said something to my brother, but her words seemed so distant; I have no idea what she said.

I guess they call this part shock. The rest of that night is a complete blur. The next thing I remember was the bus ride to school the following morning. Except for the rain pounding against the bus windows, there wasn’t a sound.

Then it was before class in the morning. Everyone sat silently, wearing black, eyes bloodshot, just trying to hold themselves together. No one succeeded though, and eye contact with anyone just about guaranteed a few sniffles, which would become sobs, which would spread all the way down the hallway. There was no way we were doing anything in class. I just remember I couldn’t keep myself quiet during our moment of silence for him; I was choking on my own sobs too loudly. I couldn’t put anything on my desk all day; my desk was hardly ever dry that Tuesday morning.

The normal class schedule ceased to exist. When the bell rang, some kids didn’t move. Friends stayed together, some of them spending all day in the classroom they shared with Mike. There was only one way to deal with the weight we felt, by remembering that we were all sharing it.

In English class, my friend Stephanie looked like she was having an especially hard time. She had played percussion with Mike in the school band. We weren’t really that close, but I could tell she could use a friend. I gave her the hug I could tell she needed, and was glad that she hugged me backcause I needed one too.

“I promised to make him a bag of Nutty Buddies,” she said while adding to the splotch of tearstains that had been growing near my shoulder all day. “How can I keep a promise to someone who isn’t here any more?” I shook my head and held her tighter, “I dunno, Steph. This is crazy.”

At some point later on during health class, it didn’t really matter when—class didn’t mean much that Tuesday—the classroom phone rang. After a few nods, the substitute teacher hung up. In the hushed whisper everyone was using that day, she said, “If you guys want to head down the hall to write on the wall, you can go ahead now.”

I stood in front of what had been a plain, dirty wall in front of the old high school gym. It had been covered with paper, and transformed into a message board for kids to write messages to Mike. I picked up a marker from a box on the floor, but had no idea what I was going to write, so I decided to just read for a while. Easier said than done. I could barely make out the words through my blurry eyes. One message was clear to me, though: “I love you Mikey, come back. –Haydn.” The short sentence sent me reeling as the reality of Mike’s death hit me square in the face for the first time. So much for the invincibility of being a teenager.

Six weeks later, as I got onto a bus in the school parking lot the morning of New Year’s Day, I couldn’t help but think back to that day. I dropped my bag on the gritty bus floor and slid onto the cold, stiffback seat. My friends, sitting nearby, were all too tired to talk. It reeked of weed and alcohol; they were clearly still hung over from the night before. I was glad my dad was sitting up front with the other adults, far enough away I hoped he wouldn’t be able to smell last night’s party.

Also at the front of the bus, Mike’s dad, John, took a head count. He had shown more strength than anyone could have imagined in the name of his son, and helped to organize this event.

A few rows in front of me, Mike’s brothers Pat and Timmy sat together. I hadn’t seen them together without Mike since the funeral. It was still weird.

My breath clouded the window next to me, and I was handed a poster and a roll of blue painter’s tape. I had a hard time sticking the tape to the moist window, but eventually I was able to hang the poster. With “Freezin’ For A Reason, #99 Club, Polar Plunge 2011” proudly taped up to my window, I drifted off to sleep.

I rubbed my eyes, looking out the window where the poster used to be- I guess my crappy tape job didn’t last. The building stretching in front of the bus, labeled “Curley Community Center,” looked like an old high school. We had arrived. I stood up and yawned, grabbed my bag, and got off the bus, finding my friends standing nearby. I joined them, and we huddled close togetherto fight off the biting wind.

After what seemed like hours in the cold, I made it through the massive line, signed the registration papers, and was sent into a room to get changed. I started to undress. Despite the cold, my jacket, sweater, sweatpants, and socks all had to come off. I put on my bathing suit, trying not to think about what I was doing too much, not wanting to psyche myself out. I packed away my warm clothes, grabbed my towel, and stepped barefoot and shirtless outside into the blinding sun. So much good the sun did though, we were in South Boston in January.

The moment my feet touched the damp sand, my toes started going numb. I clenched my teeth, wrapped my towel around my shoulders, and half walked, half hobbled to the concrete landing, desperate to escape the sharp pebbles and icy puddles on the beach. Where I found a dry patch, I also found my friends. They were huddled in the only dry space available between the puddles scattered in all directions around us. Directly behind us, a quartet of bagpipers were playing something vaguely familiar. How weren’t they freezing in their kilts? Oh yeah, never mind us shirtless lunatics. We yelled to each other over the bagpipes:

“I-i-it’s s-soo fucking c-cold!”

“I know dude, b-b-but I’m p-pumped!”

“I can’t b-believe we’re actually d-d-doing this!”

“Ahhhhhhh fuckkkk! M-me neither!”

While waiting (yeah, more waiting), all I could do was stare at the ocean only 25 yards away. It stared right back, looking bigger than it ever had before. What was I thinking, trying to stare down the ocean? It wasn’t going to make it any warmer.

“Oh shit.”

A guy with a megaphone was shouting something. He kinda sounded like the teacher in Charlie Brown; we couldn’t understand him at all. But based on the crowd’s reaction, we figured it was time to get moving. Back across the wet sand. At this point my feet were completely numb, and I could barely feel the pinches of the rocks. I made it to the mob, gathered about 10 yards from the edge of that cold, Boston ocean. I pushed my way towards the front. My dad was to my left, my friends, Mike’s friends, to my right.

“Ten! …Nine! …Eight!” the crowd chanted along with the man on the megaphone.

I was surrounded by everyone else who helped each other through the pain of losing Mike. Together, now, we could get through anything. “…Seven! …Six! …Five!”

Even so, whose idea was it to prove it by jumping into the ocean together in January?!

“…Four! …Three! …Two!”

No use complaining about it, there was no going back now.

“…One!”

I looked down the line of people about to jump in next to me and saw Mike’s dad and two brothers, looking as excited as ever to do this in Mike’s memory. With a quick look at the blue bracelet on my wrist, I read to myself, “Forever In Our Hearts, Mike Ellsessar #99.”

I took a deep breath.

“…Plunge!”