11 September 2014

From 16 to Adult in 3 Months

This blog is for the 80 graduates of the CCHS Class of 2003...we made it through together.

On September 11, 2001, I was 16 years old and a junior in high school.  

It began with sort of a rumor, hearing people in the hallway talking about a "twin tower" being bombed, and I remember thinking where are the towers - Chicago, DC, New York?  Then in Mr. Hanna's English Class we arrived to the television being on a news station where we saw a smoking building.  I don't remember a feeling of being scared at all, just really confused.  We were honestly all captivated, eyes glued to the television trying to comprehend what was going on.  Our teacher turned off the tv, and instructed us to take our test, and he'd turn it on after we were finished.  The screen went to black, and we went to our tests, only to be interrupted minutes later by another teacher running into the room to say "TURN ON THE TV, THE TOWER IS FALLING."  

We then watched live in horror as the first tower crumbled to the ground.

I remember a lot of confusion, but not necessarily immense concern, on the parts of my classmates and myself as we couldn't really grasp the situation.  Then later that afternoon one of the girl's who actually had a cell phone, said her dad had called her and said that a plane that had been hijacked and crashed in Pennsylvania.  That's when I first recall being frightened.  The threat felt close, and real, and palpable.

Our principal arranged a prayer assembly for last period to pray for all the souls lost, their families, and peace.  I had never been more thankful to go to a Catholic school.  The ability to come together as young, confused, scared classmates and pray for a better world helped us feel like we were doing something to make sense of it all.

I drove home from school, and my mother greeted me.  In her usual fashion she was calm and unflappable, and in my usual fashion I was dramatic and upset.  I'll never forget what she did next.  She said, there is nothing we can do about this, but we can do something for someone else.  And then she made me spray paint some wicker chairs for my sister.  It took what felt like hours, and I don't think we really spoke much at all.  But in the quiet breeze of a September afternoon in Wheeling, West Virginia, I had the sense that the events that unfolded that day couldn't, and wouldn't, affect me at all.  I was just 16, and terrorism (not that we were even familiar with this term yet) seemed worlds away.

Soon there were terror levels to be concerned with, wondering if we were "orange" does that mean I shouldn't go to the mall?  (Yes, in my 16 year-old-head I was concerned that a highly congregated place like the Ohio Valley Mall could be a terrorist high-value target).  Osama bin Laden was more than just a weird guy's name I had to remember for a social studies quiz, he now was the face of evil that was plastered on our newspaper, magazines and tv.  Our class trips to France and Spain were cancelled.  Things became more serious, news needed to be read and watched.  New terms and cultures and concepts were quickly being absorbed.  Our lives were changing and adapting to this fear of the great unknown concept known as "terrorism."

Two months later in that same year,  our beloved classmate, goofy friend, and hilarious good guy, Matthew Paul Velez collapsed of a heart attack in gym class.  We had heard the ambulance siren in Biology 2 class the previous period.  Then in health class we heard that Matt collapsed.  I didn't know what exactly that meant, but his classmates from grade school immediately knew.  Matt had a heart condition since birth.  This was serious.

Days passed and hopes were heightened and dashed as Matt was in a hospital an hour from our hometown.  We all flipped through our photo albums to find pictures of him to carry with us.  Stickers were made and worn on her school blouses to support Matt.  A well meaning parent told a group of us at a talent show to not worry, and that he'll be fine, and he just fell to his face so at most he'll need a chipped tooth repaired, and his dad's a dentist, so it's all good haha, joke, joke.  It's a parent; I mean they had to tell the truth, right?  

Then Thanksgiving break came.  Not wanting to leave the comfort of my friends, who were all holding each other together by threads as we awaited news to see how Matt was going to come out of this, we decided to spend Thanksgiving night at Carri's for a sleepover to watch a new episode of Friends.

After a dinner where my family prayed for Matt, I hopped on AOL to get the latest news from friends to be shocked at Christina asking me if "it" was true.  Did Matt really have no brain activity?  She had just heard it from someone else on AOL.  I assured her that it couldn't be, and I'd call KP to find out.  Using my aunt's phone, I called KP's house.  She and her mother both answered at the same time, to which her mother then promptly said, "Katie please get off the phone."  In that moment, I knew the truth.

After KP ran through the alleyway to my aunt's house to find me and collapse in my arms we embraced in my cousins' jolly rainbow bedding themed room, trying to comprehend what happened.  I felt as if it were only happening to KP... that I was there to comfort her.  Methodically, I asked for a phone book, and called my friends at their houses or grandparents' houses to break the news, so they wouldn't have to find out on AOL.

Somehow through the hours that followed, we decided to round up parents and cars in the St. Mike's parking lot to drive the hour to the hospital that held Matt to say our final goodbyes.  I remember seeing parents' faces, the same parents that watched me play soccer, now watching us hold each other and sob uncontrollably.

It was a return to that feeling of helplessness, confusion, and being frightened that we had felt 2 months before, only this time it was our friend, and that, well that was gut wrenchingly heartbreaking.

We made it about 3 exits down the interstate, when a cell phone was answered and we were asked to return to Wheeling.   It was decided that we were to remember Matt as he was, not in a hospital bed, and to give his family time to grieve.  We returned to Hinerman's house for a while, and then ultimately I slept at Carri's as planned, yet no one was interested in what happened on that episode of Friends.

While we attended our playoff football game that weekend, Matt was taken off life support.

How could our 17 year old friend die?

His viewing was at the funeral home across from our high school.  After school one day, we all filtered next door.  Still to this day the most vivid and haunting image of Matt's death that immediately comes to mind is the sidewalk in front of the funeral home piled 4 or 5 high the entire width of the building with colorful LL Bean and Jansport book bags.  Each one belonged to one of us... mere teenagers that had thrown our bags down, releasing the heavy load of uncertainty we carried all week, and turning to take the steps into the funeral home, into the reality that our friend had died.

At the time we just did what we could do to keep moving.  I had no idea the effect these two events would have on my life.

After September 11th, troops were sent to Afghanistan.  Nine years later, I would join them to provide morale lifting efforts to do then what I considered my patriotic duty and adventure, and now what I consider my life's passion.

After Matt's death, I learned the power of accepting tragedy, but then using it to positively affect others by fighting for a cause that means something to you.  I saw the way my friends came together to raise money for defibrillators for our school through the Matt Velez Memorial Wiffleball Tournament.  It was the first time I truly raised money for a cause I believed in, a cause that I felt in my heart.  It's the way I feel now about supporting our troops and preventing veteran suicide.

Calling what happened "events" even sounds callous to me.  Matt's death shook me, and everyone I knew, to our cores.  It was heart breaking and hope shattering, faith dashing and gut wrenching.  It was a pain that I don't think any of us knew before.  Matt was a ball of life with a huge smile who cracked everyone up, and never had an enemy, and then he was gone.

The world, and our place in it, changed in the fall of 2001.  We were weathered by tragedy, and unsure of the future, but looking back 13 years now I'd say we did alright.

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