His name was Austin Koehler. His hair was stringy and blond. He was the type of boy that was constantly dirty. It was fair to assume that his mom didn’t make him take as many showers as mine did. He was continuously on the go, always outside, just ready to explore whatever piqued his interest.
Austin was my next-door neighbor and neither of our backyards had fences, so he would always stroll over to mine. It was pretty obvious who had the better yard, because mine was home to a gigantic play set that had chain-linked swings and a bright yellow slide. Needless to say, he was over constantly—so much so that from time to time my parents would complain about his lack of parental supervision. I didn’t mind Austin being over all the time. He played the big brother role and showed me all of the things that I needed to learn in order to be a kid growing up on the south side of Lincoln, Nebraska. He showed me how to climb large piles of dirt and how to pump my legs back to get the momentum that allowed me to swing higher.
The swings turned into our go-to meeting place. After he taught me how to swing we would have competitions to see who could fly the highest. I would always try really hard to impress him; sometimes I like to think it worked. We would both end up swinging so high that the wooden pegs that kept the swing set in the ground would start to come up and the whole set would shift. We would just laugh and giggle and laugh some more. We had very few cares in the world at that moment. Austin, the swings and me.
The year 2002 was a big year for the both of us. Austin had just turned seven and I had just turned five. Austin had started elementary school and was always bragging about how great it was. My stories about preschool were nothing compared to his. Every day after school he would be sitting on my swings waiting for me, like clockwork. As soon as I saw him I would rush outside and our adventures would begin. Eventually, we moved from swinging competitions to jumping off the swing as soon as it got to its highest point in the air. Austin made it look so incredibly easy; he was a naturally athletic human. But, I on the other hand, was neither athletic nor graceful, and had little to no balance. Jumping off the swings did not go well for me. I started off very hesitant and wouldn’t jump unless I was only a couple feet off the ground. After I had nailed the landing a couple times I got bolder and decided to go big. I got going pretty fast, and I jumped. Instead of landing gently on my feet like Austin, I did a belly flop and landed on my stomach—face smashed into the dirt. It was almost as embarrassing as it was painful.
My mom later told me that she didn’t let me play with Austin for the next couple days. She would just close all of our blinds and pretend he wasn’t there. I would catch glimpses of Austin, sitting on the swings eagerly waiting for my return. Sometimes I wonder if his mom caught glimpses of him too.
Austin’s dad had died in a car accident when he was three, and his mom, who had let all the grief and pain build up inside of her, responded by trying to ignore the life that was happening around her. I overheard my parents talking about how she would push him out of the house because she didn’t want to watch him, but maybe he reminded her too much of the husband that she lost. Even though Austin was young and an only child, maybe he could see how much his mom was hurting when she looked at him and decided to do her a favor by making himself scarce around the house. I can’t blame my parents for assuming they knew what Austin’s mom was going through when so many of our neighbors had already inputted their opinions regarding Austin’s mom. It’s difficult when your neighborhood is a breeding ground of gossip. It’s similar to a car wreck; you just can’t look away.
It was July, and Austin and his mom were taking a road trip to Disneyland. Man, was I jealous. My mom later told me that I stood at the end of my driveway and watched him and his mom drive away in a dirty black Jeep Wrangler. He was smirking at me as his little hand frantically waved from the back window. At first, I counted down the days it would take him to get back. It was weird not seeing him sitting on my swings waiting for me. Then like most five year olds, I got distracted or bored and lost track of time.
July 29, 2002. The air was hot and sticky. I was inside trying to stay cool when I noticed my mom sneak out of the house. I registered that it was unusual for her to sneak off so quietly in the middle of the day, but I shrugged it off and continued watching the new episode of Scooby Doo. Once my episode had ended, I realized she was still gone and wandered outside to find her. It didn’t take too long to spot her at the top of our driveway speaking very intensely with the neighbor from across the street. I vividly remember as I came up behind her I noticed that her face was sweating a lot, especially from her eyes. Then I started to put the pieces together, the slouched posture, the sniffling. She was visibly upset and when she saw me she started sobbing even harder, her eyes overflowed with tears. Immediate fear crept up inside me and took over my body. I had never seen my mom in this state before. The neighbor slowly crept out of the picture as my mom began the long process of dodging all my “what’s going on” questions. The process of her telling me that Austin had died in a car accident on their way home from Disneyland was a blur. She reassured me that his mother hadn’t died—as if that would make the whole situation better. I don’t think I fully understood what death was at that point. I don’t think I figured it out for a while. When my mom explained the events that occurred I nodded my head in agreement, hanging onto her every word. I didn’t understand why everyone was so upset. Austin would be back in a couple of days, he just got hung up in Disneyland, I told myself.
I waited on the swings for him. Slowly pushing my feet back and forth in the dirt, making deformed circles. I would try to have swinging competitions with myself but it wasn’t as fun as it looked. I tried climbing the large dirt piles too; always glancing over my shoulder waiting to see his crooked smile, missing multiple teeth. He told me that everyone called him a jack-o-lantern at school but he didn’t mind because soon his real teeth would grow in and he would have his real smile. I waited and waited and then it got too dark to be playing outside and my mom called me in for the night.
I repeated these actions every day until the start of school. I missed him. I didn’t know how to put into words the emotions that I was feeling, but I knew I missed him and I was angry he was dead. I was angry that he never came back from Disneyland. I was angry he didn’t say goodbye. I was angry that I waited on those swings every day for him and he never showed up. I was angry that I didn’t understand what death was. I got so frustrated that I couldn’t figure it out on my own that I ended up going to my mom for advice. She reiterated the fact that Austin wasn’t coming back. That I would never see him again, but it was okay because he was in a better place. When I asked her what the better place was, she told me Heaven, where Great-Grandma Rigby was. She explained all of the wonderful experiences that Austin would have in his new home; jumping in countless mud piles, playing with brand new balls, and swinging on his very own swing set, too. Although my mother’s words did help my worry subside, there was still a pang of emptiness that I couldn’t explain.
Eventually the beginning of August rolled around and the school year started up. I was starting kindergarten and I was a small fish in big pond. Time kept creeping forward and the memories of Austin were starting to get blurred on the edges. I made new friends in school, mainly girls who told me that I was wearing my hair wrong, but I guess you can’t be picky in kindergarten. Some days my mom would let me invite one of them over after school. I would tentatively give them Austin’s swing, careful not to speak his name, not wanting to share any of our memories with someone who wouldn’t understand our relationship. Sometimes I would try to show them how to climb the large dirt piles and they would tell me that it wasn’t ladylike.
Time is a weird concept. It’s always moving and constantly evolving. It makes some of your memories crystal clear and others fade away. My memories of Austin faded away throughout the next couple of years. Eventually Austin’s swing turned into Allison’s swing. We got new next-door neighbors that had children too small for me to play with. His name rarely came up in conversation and the feeling of missing him fell away. From time to time I will look out at our backyard and visualize the old rickety play set that once held so many memories. I see Austin and I laughing as we both try to win one last swinging competition.
Looking back and remembering Austin still affects me to this day. Death is concept that is hard to grasp, even when you are an adult. For me, having to internalize it as a child was challenging. Similar to many aspects of my life, my perspective on death has been shaped by my experiences with it.
My cousin, Cody, is a funeral director who lives in small town in the middle of Nebraska. He does everything from embalming to directing the funeral services. When I was younger I asked him to give me tour of the funeral home. It wasn’t anything extravagant. I vividly remember the embalming room, which had salmon-colored decorative tiles. The space where the services were held was dark and it made sense that this was where death belonged. I remember thinking to myself, this is where it ends. My naked body is going to be laid out on a cold metal tray. Cody will start by embalming me, dress me like a doll, and then attempt to use his minimal makeup training skills to make me look presentable for my last party before they lock me in a wooden box and stick me in the ground. Even though that entire process sounds worse than sticking needles in my eyes, it makes me wonder if it even matters because I will be dead. Death is such a hard concept because no one really knows what it entails. No one knows if it’s painful. No one knows if there’s a bigger and better experience that happens after. No one has the answers. As humans, that fact is one that is extremely hard to accept. Now, I have come to realize that death is another event in our lives that just happens. We have minimal control over it. The only thing we can continue to do is wait it out until our day comes.