When you are a teen you think you are invincible. That's the saying anyhow, but I'm not sure if that is quite the right sentiment. I think it is really that you have no idea about what can happen as the result of your actions. You are learning to make decisions, but you just have no concept of all the ramifications of them. You haven't been around long enough to have made that many mistakes yet. You are simply void of knowledge, not trying your hand at being invincible. If you are a teen reading this, please take a moment to look around you at your friends. Which one of them would you be willing to lose to learn from a mistake?
I was in the teen club. We were all just having fun, and we were not doing anything wrong, by any stretch of the imagination. We wanted to go do a truly “teen activity”, to go toilet paper the house of another teen friend. So we all climbed into my friend's station wagon. And by “we”, I mean a car totally packed with kids front to back, at least twelve of us, probably more. My friend was driving carefully, and we had a successful mission, one awesomely toilet-papered house with streamers way high up in the trees that would take months to come down. But we had no idea of the impact of what the weight of that many extra passengers in a car could do.
We were driving down the street to take everyone back home. Another car was speeding and cut us off just as the street curved downhill. My friend braked to avoid that car but it caused our car to lose control. There was just too much weight for him to hold the car steady on the curve and he couldn't handle the tricky maneuver. The car jumped the curb, he managed to avoid slamming into the huge sycamore trees, and that twist sent our car into a full side-over-side roll, landing straight up again. Miraculously, everyone was alive; at least being packed into the car had kept everyone from flying about. I was the only one with an injury, just a tiny cut on my knee, and I had been lucky indeed, as I had been sitting in the “death seat”, the middle seat in the front, and in those days there were no seat belts for that seat. So we learned an important facet to safety when driving, about the physics of sheer weight. I am sure my friend never forgot that day, and knows if it had ended differently that he would have never given me my first kiss.
Sophomore year in high school held the excitement of getting our learner's permits and my best friend was the first one to get her driver's license. Total freedom was ours! We were really adults now. But her mom had rules about when the car could be driven, specifically that it was too soon to drive at night, only during the day to school or short outings close to home. My best friend was such a bold girl, so full of energy and life. She could do anything. She loved taking photographs, we loved make-up and clothes, and we even loved biology. In one exercise the teacher had us measure the width of our eyes and we found out that ours were identical; we were best friends who even had the same size brown eyes. We were all top students, but none of us was smart enough to know just how wise her mom's rule had been about taking the car out at night.
One night, my friend snuck the car out of the garage and drove around, and snuck it back in safely. She told us about it the next day. We all thought that was so cool. We admired her boldness. She wanted to do it again, and take one of us with her, whoever would be available to stay over at her house the next Friday night. I did not know it that day, how lucky I had been that it wasn't to be me.
The next morning after that special outing, the rest of us were waiting for our two bold buddies to show up, and tell us all about their amazing adventure as we walked together in a charity walk-a-thon. We waited awhile, but they weren't there yet, so we gave up and started walking. About half-way through the walk-a-thon, someone drove the route to find me, to make sure that I was truly safe, and they drove me home. There had been a tragic accident. No one knows why, but our friends had been traveling far too fast on a street with a notorious tricky curve and they had plowed straight into the telephone pole, like so many others had done before in that very same spot. The car exploded into flame. A man who lived there came out of his house when he heard the crash, and was able to drag the passenger to safety, but not the driver. We learned later that it would not have mattered, that my best friend had died instantly.
My other friend was in the hospital, she was delirious and kept calling my name. That was why they had gone out to find me. They were not sure at that point if there was anyone else in the car with them, and they had to make sure. She was in the hospital for weeks. She couldn't remember the accident, and no one would tell her what had happened. The responsibility of that grave undertaking fell on two very slender shoulders, and I was the one who finally told her that our friend did not make it. Somehow it just seemed right that I should be the one to tell her, for I was the one closest to both of them. It was the first truly adult action I ever took. I was just shy of sixteen.
My surviving friend never forgave herself for what had happened. She held that guilt for more than thirty-five years, it never left her. For thirty of those years, we had been separated, going different ways in our lives. When my dad died, she was able to find me again, and that is when I found out that she still suffered from that one mistake. It didn't seem to matter how many times I told her that it was not her fault. It was my best friend's decision to take the car out. She was going to do that no matter who went with her. This friend had not caused it, and if there was guilt to be shared, then we shared it together, for all of us had thought it was a “cool” thing to do. Not one of us had hesitated and thought otherwise, we had not lived long enough and made enough mistakes to know better. Now in our fifties, my friend has finally started to believe me, to make peace with our shared mistake, and to move on with her life.
Things travel in pairs. Ying and yang. Light and dark. Good and bad. Life and death. That was a tragic lesson, one I would never forget, but there had also been a beautiful lesson, learned from my best friend's mom. When it came time for the funeral to bury her only child, she requested a Mass of the Resurrection, not a Mass for the Dead, and she requested that we all wear white to celebrate her daughter's entry into heaven, not the traditional black clothes of those in mourning. One year later, she adopted a baby and began life as a mother once more. She was the one who taught me what it is truly like to “live your faith”. When people are amazed at the resiliency I have shown during difficult situations in my life, I tell them that I gained that ability through what I learned from witnessing this one incredibly brave woman's faith in action.
When I publish this story, I will have to tell my friend once again that it was not her fault, and that we are going to make the most of our mistake this time. Now other teens might read our story, and maybe a couple of them will listen to someone who had been a teen just like them once, and that, maybe, the lesson from our mistake could be learned through the osmosis of reading, instead of through losing the life of a friend. My teen readers, I want you to look around you at your friends one more time, and please tell me, which one of them would you be willing to save?