One year ago, I sat on the bleachers of a varsity basketball game in the dead of winter and scrolled through the contents of my phone as the players warmed up. Augusta Imperatore, my sister’s closest childhood friend, someone I had grown up with, had posted a photo of her and her three brothers. She looked beautiful, with her strawberry-blonde hair parted to the side as always. All four of them wore blue…it was a nice photo. My eyes skimmed over the caption: “I love you more than you know JI rest easy best friend” followed by two pink hearts, one after the other. Immediately, the bouncing of the basketballs hitting the gym floor faded. I messaged our family group chat asking what had happened to Justin and in response I was told to come home. As I sat in my taxi, I stared at the photo and studied the comments, trying to understand what had happened. The comments overflowed with red hearts, as if no one knew what else to say. The taxi driver left me on my corner and immediately I rushed into my dining room where I was met by my parents. They sat with uneasy expressions on their faces. “How was your day honey?” “What happened to Justin?”, I responded. My dad explained that Justin had passed away the night before. “How?”, I asked with a shaking yet confused voice. “You know Justin has struggled with bipolar disorder for his entire life, he was at a very low point honey. He killed himself.” I spent that evening in my room one tear after another falling from my eyes and rolling down my cheeks, leaving a firm salty feeling once they had dried.
About a week passed. I woke up early on Saturday, October 6. I slid on a black lace dress followed by a pair of black sheer tights. My feet slipped into dark purple high heels, the closest shoes I owned to black. I put two pins in my hair, one on either side, and no makeup. Mascara was not appropriate for that day. My family and I piled into the car, each of us dressed in the darkest and least ostentatious clothing that our closets held.
We arrived at the church and walked up the exterior stairs. Greeted by both familiar and strange faces, everyone’s expression was about the same, blank. The priest spoke followed by friends and family. The size of the church and weak microphones echoed the words of these loved ones, each story drowning in the air. The spoken words brought Justin back to life for just a few seconds. As the cold October air hit my skin, shielded only by a thin sleeveless dress, my arms were left coated in goosebumps. My feet ached from the height of my heels. I couldn’t grasp it all. I did not shed a tear. Not until I saw the face of Augusta at least. I have it memorized in my mind: agony-filled eyes paired with a dismal smile.
The service concluded and Justin’s friends lined up down the stairs of the church. Each of them tall and brawny like Justin was, lacrosse players. Their broad shoulders, either side in contact with the friend that stood next to them, ultimately creating a welcoming pathway for the Imperatore family to walk through. As we waited at the bottom, I stood stiff. Augusta, her two brothers, and her parents walked down the stairs. I hid in the crowd. Eyes suddenly filled with uncontrollable tears, one falling after another, leaving a crusty salt on my cheeks once again. We walked towards the sorrow-filled Imperatore family. I stood back as my sister strongly embraced Augusta first and I waited my turn. We delivered our condolences, the same simple words that I am sure each of them heard one hundred times that day alone, but there was nothing else to say.
Their faces as they slowly yet quickly descended the stairs will forever be engraved in my mind.
This day was the first I had experienced proper grief. I had lived through the death of two family members before, one through sickness and one through age, but this loss provoked an unfamiliar feeling. A loss and a feeling far harder to process than ever before.