Payton L. Thomas
On that windy April Wednesday, time stopped. I remember every detail about my surroundings: the hazy 5:00 p.m. sky that hinted to rain at 6:00 p.m.; the uneven concrete in the parking lot where all of the high school bozos whipped their wild rides around, showing off to the cheerleaders and volleyball players because both of their uniforms involved tight little shorts; and the soccer field off in the distance patiently awaiting next season. I had gone out to the parking lot because I heard an obnoxiously loud ring that ended up being a call from my mother.
This was not a typical time for her to call me because she knew that I had a track meet and was already in my focused “nobody interrupt my pump-up playlist” kind of mood. Even though I wasn’t in the headspace to chit-chat, I figured I would get some kind of guilt-ridden karma for ignoring my mom, so I decided to ditch Spotify and retreated to the quiet parking lot.
Quiet. So quiet that the wind whistled as it hit the flagpole out in front of the school. When I finally answered her call, I could immediately tell something was wrong. Time slowed, but so slightly that it wasn’t noticeable.
My mother is never dramatic. She has cried less than my father in my entire lifetime. So, when I heard the quiver in her breath, and I imagined what her facial expression was, I could feel my heart skip a few beats.
“Mom?” I said with concern and hesitation.
“Are you alone?” she asked in a whisper because she didn’t want me to hear her sadness.
“Yes, I’m in my car,” I lied as I stood in the middle of the lot because I didn’t want to waste time finding a more secluded place. I had that gut wrenching, throat closing, lip quivering feeling of sheer anticipation and worry. My mother was silent for a long time, and despite my impatience that was building up, I let her take a minute to breathe because I was not even sure if I was ready to hear the news just like she was not ready to tell me.
“Alex Larr took his own life this morning.”
And that was the exact moment when time came to a screeching halt. Like a teenager on their phone when they approach a stop sign, like a deer in the road with headlights coming at them, and like a bird slamming into a city building window and falling fifty stories down, down, down. I waited for the world to start rotating again, but it never did. My mom and I, both in shock by her words, didn’t utter a single word. Numbness filled my body like I was turning into ice right there in parking spot 42 in the Plainfield High school student lot.
I felt nothing. Numb.
When I finally mustered up enough gusto to form a response, all I could manage to expel was “Okay,” and then I hung up.
Standing. Floating. Numb.
The world around me went dark and my first memory of him played in front of my eyes like I was at the theater watching an old movie on a projector. It was the first day of soccer tryouts during my junior year of high school. I only showed up because we were supposed to be getting a new coach who was less of a scumbag than the last one, so I thought I would give soccer one last shot. I could see him standing with heaps of confidence and all of the girls huddled around him. He tried to look as intimidating as possible on that first day of tryouts, but it only took thirty minutes and a song with a groovy beat on the speaker for him to drop the tough-guy act and start acting like himself. After he strapped his true personality back on, it didn’t take long for me to decide that he was one of the coolest coaches around. He was fun-loving, encouraging, motivating, goofy, and all of the good qualities that a mentor and a friend should have. Hard work, dedication, and grit were important to him on the field, but off the field he was all about having fun. He was always dancing, chatting, and being the friend that I needed him to be.
It has almost been two years since that lonely day in the Plainfield high school parking lot. I think a part of me will always remain in spot 42 where I received that phone call. The thought of his absence is like that pesky toothache that you forget about until you take a bite of an apple. The apple, in this case, is every time I see a soccer field or when people talk about their relationships with their high school coaches. The reminders always send me into a whirlpool of “what ifs.” What if I had seen the signs sooner? What if I had done more to support him outside of soccer life? What if I had asked him how he was doing more often? What if I could have done something to have stopped him…?
“Hey, Coach! Want to get lunch sometime this week to catch up?”
“Sure thing, my wife can make us some sandwiches and we can talk. I’ve been dying to hear about your experience at Marquette so far, and especially about club soccer. Does Wednesday at noon work for you?”
“Sounds good, see you then!”
I would’ve shown up to his house in my Marquette club soccer gear just to flaunt it because I know he would have been proud of me for making the team. I would’ve talked to him and his wife and gotten advice about how to balance work life and school life just before we talked about all of the fun parties and places I had been since leaving the small-town Indiana bubble. I would have played with his four-year-old son who I’ve known since he was born. He would be so grown up and he would finally be able to say my name after Coach repeated it to him a million times over and over. I would have had another support system that was different from my family or my friends, and it would’ve been so helpful in its own way. The thought of him is not enough to comfort me and his memory is not enough to support me. The mental image of his dirty black baseball hat and infectious smile, while most endearing, does not fill the void he left in my life.
His absence becomes more noticeable as the years go by. It is as if it started off as one stray thread that continues to unravel until the entire cloth is a pile of string. His absence has stopped me in my tracks, my Earth has stopped spinning around the Sun. I feel as if it has all come to a screeching halt and everything around me has kept up the pace of life, moving and evolving.
Still. Stagnant. Empty.
As I sit here stopped in time, frozen, unable to move on, I miss him more and more.
Payton Thomas is a sophomore Biomedical Sciences major at Marquette University, and she hopes to eventually attend PA school. She is involved in several organizations on campus including Global Brigades, Alpha Epsilon Delta, BMSA, and Alpha Sigma Nu. In her spare time, Payton loves running and competing in half marathons.