It's been eight years since you succumbed to your demons. I remember that day so vividly.
“Jess is gone,” my dad told me.
“Gone? She ran away?”
“No. She’s GONE,” he confirmed.
I’ve written about you twice -- twice in eight years. They were short pieces, never offering much detail. Most people I have met in my adult life know that I have a cousin who passed away when we were just 19 years old, but they hardly ask “how?” I never tell them, regardless.
The truth of the matter is, how do you explain to someone that a beautiful, educated, funny, well-read, athletic girl who had a 10 pm curfew was found unresponsive in an apartment with a needle in her arm?
People have a way of pigeonholing those who suffer from addiction as “trash,” “junkies,” or “criminals,” which is hardly ever the truth.
Addiction is an illness. Addicts have families and aspirations. Jess was in honors classes at a competitive high school; one decision and one lapse in judgment can alter the course of an entire life.
I know that’s what happened to Jess, and I refuse to let 18 months out of an entire 19 years on this Earth dictate my her memory.
So, why am I writing this now?
Just the other day, your mother said to me, “I thought things were supposed to get easier after eight years.” A lot has happened, Jess. But you still have a mom and a dad, and they still have a daughter. Your dad has made it his mission to tell your story at high schools, hoping to steer at least one student in another, less fatal direction.
It seems, more so than when you were alive, heroin has been pushed to the forefront of the news. New Jersey is grappling with a spiraling heroin epidemic. Maybe, just maybe, your story will save someone from falling down the same harrowing rabbit hole you did; if not for him or herself, then for that person's family.
I am mad, Jess. I miss you. Sometimes, between the sadness, however, I am mad. I am mad that I lost you long before you died. I am mad at you for what you put your parents through. I am mad that your last words to me were, “See ya later, Cuz.”
I am mad that you never met your beautiful nieces. I see a lot of you in them. I am mad they play “dress up” in your clothes, but have no idea how awesome of a person you were. I am mad that you never met the man with whom I am spending my life. I am mad that we celebrated your 21st birthday without you.
I am mad that my relationships with my aunt and uncle — your parents — have been strained ever since. No one speaks about what happened, but I feel it. I am a constant, gnawing reminder of what could have been for you. Some days, I know it hurts — literally hurts — your mother to be around me. I don’t blame her.
I am mad the people with whom you used are still here without you. I am mad that instead of calling your parents that fateful day, you called a stranger you had met in rehab.
Drugs and the deaths they cause kill more than just the user. After seven Christmases without you, your parents finally started putting up a Christmas tree again. Your bedroom is now a home office. Things I thought I would always recall about you are starting to fade.
Jess, don’t you see? So much has happened since everything happened. So much has changed since everything changed.
We were born 11 months apart, but I am nearly 10 years older than you now. I am experiencing a chapter of my life that I never got to share with you, and that hurts me. We didn’t have enough time together. You didn’t have enough time to get it together.
No, you didn’t survive your addiction, but I know that because of you, others survived their own addictions. My sister, unfortunately, experienced her own battle with drugs, but your loss motivates her to stay clean. She is thriving now; she told me she thanks you.
She says that you may very well be the sole reason why she never experimented with opiates. If that’s true, I have to thank you, as well, because I need my sister on this planet.
Is this literally everything I have wanted to say to you for last eight years? Probably not. I will go on living my life leaving one question unanswered, the last thing I asked you when we were sitting on my living room couch that day: “Why do you do this, Jess?”
I miss you. I love you. I will see ya later, Cuz.
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