Erick Rommel

I was in fifth or sixth grade when my grandmother died. It wasn’t the first time I’d lost a family member. My grandfather had died several years before, but it was the first time I was old enough to be aware and involved.

I remember wanting to buy yellow roses for her funeral because I had just read a book that said yellow roses mean goodbye. I remember my grandmother’s love of Stouffer’s Swedish Meatballs, a love that I immediately shared with my first bite. I remember her bookshelf with hundreds of issues of National Geographic magazines dating back decades.

I remember being sad when she died, but not overwhelmed. I understood then, in some ways better than I do now, that life is a journey with an end. My grandmother lived a long life and was loved for it.

With the exception of a friend who died in second grade, I lived in a protective bubble growing up. People died, but they were always older. It was a tragedy that came as a surprise but never a total shock.

As we grow, the bonds we create with those around us grow stronger. We imagine a group of friends and acquaintances who will always be by our side. Or, if separated by distance, we imagine a group that will remain connected with the help of technology and unforgettable memories.

Reality is different. Not all of life’s journeys are the same length. My friend from second grade died when he was 8. Joel, a classmate from my high school, was two years younger than me. He enjoyed traveling. I recall him participating in every international trip that my high school offered. He energetically saw the world with an unmistakable presence. He died before reaching college.

Bill was one of the nicest people you’d ever meet. Through four years of high school, I never saw anyone angry or upset with him. He also seemed to belong to every group in high school. I was so happy when we reconnected on Facebook after much time apart, and I remember my shock on learning he died a few months later.

Of all the people I’ve known, only one had a personality so large that he could have been the lead character of a novel.

My friend Tim enjoyed giving random women a rose. He wanted to make them happy. When dozens of us in college decided to have a dorm-wide water battle, he put on a bathrobe and took out his camera, documenting the whole event without getting wet. One time, we walked to town after a significant snowstorm. He shuffled into the middle of an unplowed intersection, right under a traffic light, and made a snow angel. I can still relive the phone call when someone told me he had died, four months before he was going to be part of my wedding party.

Take a moment, wherever you are, and look at the people around you. We imagine them journeying with us our entire lives. Some will survive, others won’t. Some will journey further. Never forget that the strongest force in the world is the connection between you and those you know, especially those you know and love without realizing it.

Statistics say Joel, Bill and Tim should still be with us. Statistics are cruel. It doesn’t matter to me that 90 percent of the people their age are still alive. They’re gone, and I miss them.