In my memory of the wreck, I picture myself there alone. Just me, watching your body (which already no longer seemed like you) try to breathe. The smell of burnt rubber hangs heavy in the air and I stand dumbly on the side of a Tennessee highway, the sharp grass cutting my ankles, the sky a flawless, unforgivable blue.
In reality there were two other people in your car, three other people in mine. There will always be a distance between the way it happened for each of us. The friend that was driving your Jeep while you lay down on the backseat to rest. The trucker who somehow misjudged as he changed lanes. Christine, in the car in front of you. She screamed into the rearview mirror, unable to stop what had already been set in motion, what could not be undone.
Did you know, Sean, that a dragonfly’s enormous eyes enable it to see in a nearly perfect sphere? What that must be like— to take in everything at once, the world rushing in from all sides. I think of you in your final moments and wonder if it was like that. The tumbling sky, the reflection of sun mirrored in CDs as they slid from your open window, the solid certainty of the ground below. More than anything, I hope that there was no time for fear.
I have found myself wanting to tell my daughters about the dragonflies, how they helped me heal when my friend passed away and went to heaven. I will use these terms to soften the truth, which is that your death was ugly and awful, and you did not believe in heaven. Perhaps my girls will imagine you, winged or weightless, ascending to the clouds. They don’t need to know that after you went airborne, you hit the earth with a force that shattered everything inside of you. When I tell them about the dragonflies, I will leave this part out.
I had never been so close to tragedy, never witnessed the way hearts can splinter and crack. I was twenty years old, and it was too much. I was broken, after it happened; I was constantly breaking. I was not alone in this. I didn’t know where you went when you left your body behind, but it had to be better than the world the rest of us were stuck in.
A couple of days after the accident, when all of us – including you – were back home in New York, and the music festival we were supposed to go to was well underway a thousand miles from where we ended up, I went with Christine to your house. In the back of her parents’ car was a garbage bag full of your belongings, salvaged from the wreckage. It was the first time, I think, that Christine had seen your mom since you died. They collapsed together on the lawn while I hovered close to the car, wanting to be away from there, someplace where the pain wasn’t so raw. These were the people you loved most; I was just a spectator watching your mom remove items from the bag, gripping each one to her chest, her body unable to contain her sadness and rage. “Oh God,” she screamed. “Oh God, Oh God. There is no fucking God!” And it felt that way. It really did.
I don’t know if it was before or after this that the dragonflies began to appear.
Here is what I know: Your mom was sitting outside, talking with her brother and crying. I wasn’t there; this is what she told me. There was an empty chair between them, and a dragonfly landed on it. It just settled in, its big eyes seeing everything, its veined wings shuddering, alive. Minutes passed, and it stayed there by her side, and something felt different. More comfortable, just slightly more right than before.
That day or soon after, Christine lay in her backyard on a blanket. The man she loved—though the older I get, the more I want to call you a boy—was dead, and it would be a long time until the pain would become bearable. So she let the earth be under her, which was all she could do. But when she turned her head there it was, a dragonfly beside her. Beautiful and alien, it rested there with a grace that soothed her. There was something about the dragonflies.
The stories trickled in: dragonflies lingering around the people who loved you, appearing at strange times and places. My dad, who had no sons and always liked your crass sense of humor, drove by a car with a “For Sale” sign on it and did a double-take: the license plate read “DRGNFLY”. I was interning at a boarding school for the summer, though I wasn’t really ready to be away from home. During an orientation session a dragonfly flew in through the open window of the lecture hall and made circuits around the room. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. He’s with me, I remember thinking, making sure I’m okay.
I don’t know, Sean, if it was you. I don’t know if I believe that a soul can become something new, even when that something has eyes that see everything. I do know that the dragonflies looked into the heart of my despair and gave me hope. Perhaps they were a sign from the God you never thought existed; perhaps they were just coincidence. You are gone, but every time a dragonfly hovers near, every time I point one out to my daughters, I think of you, friend, and I smile, understanding that after death comes life.
Image: Om nom nom nom by Erica Annie via Flickr.
This essay first appeared on the website Medium.