Warning: Flash Flood
Humans are born saplings. Vulnerable at first, we begin to grow and branch out. Each person is different; they could be a vibrant spruce or a steadfast sequoia. Together we grow up in communities and with institutions or, in other words, forests. Other trees that influence our growth surround us. I fancy myself as an Apple Blossom Dogwood in full bloom. My vibrant personality emanates from my rosy flowers. As a sixth grader in the familiar woods of St. Michael’s Parish Day School, I first met Jose Rincon. Jose was a Sycamore tree. One day he would be tall and steadfast, always reaching for the highest goal. In a small class of approximately forty-five students it was easy to know everyone, but I never talked much with Jose until eighth grade.
I sat behind Jose in history class and we were lab partners for science. At the time, I never thought much about our relationship. Whenever we received history test scores, I would anxiously poke his red polo covered back to inquire about his grade. He always scored higher than I. Then in science we would giggle in the back of the room while Mr. Smith, our science teacher with a bushy walrus mustache, would sarcastically guide us through the dissection of a starfish. Jose was brilliant. He was a proud, yet awkward, Hispanic Sycamore sapling with spiky gelled hair that he never let anyone touch, complete with glasses and braces. We were not best friends or even close friends, but his smile was infectious and we regularly were reprimanded for talking and laughing.
On Saturday, January 12, 2008, Jose and I, along with most of our class, took the placement test for a private Catholic high school. After the test and amongst the thicket of middle school saplings, we waved goodbye and went our separate ways. I spent that night at my friend Olivia “Liv” Wolfe’s house. The next morning, Olivia and I were deciding between watching the movie Knocked Up and the television series, Laguna Beach, when her mother called us to breakfast. Sleepily I dragged myself into the kitchen table and plopped down in a seat. Mrs. Wolfe was sorting through the morning newspaper on the island while Mr. Wolfe flipped golden brown pancakes on the stove. I watched her parents lazily while Liv ran to her room to answer her ringing phone. I thought nothing of it as it was probably our friend Nicole calling Liv about seeing a movie. Before I knew what was happening my entire life changed.
“No! No! You’re lying! No!” Liv screamed from the other room. This was not the joking squeal for which teenage girls are infamous. This scream was filled with shock and pain. Everyone in the kitchen froze and my mind raced. Liv slowly stumbled into the kitchen doorway from the hall, her face stricken with disbelief. Still clutching the phone and shaking, she choked, “Jose died”.
The flash flood hit me so hard I could not breathe. Despite being rooted to the forest floor, I felt as though I had been dragged under and did not know which direction the surface was. My lungs were screaming for air while my stomach plummeted to the ground and my heart was ripped into infinite pieces. All I could manage to stammer was “what…?”
“Jose is dead. Nicole just called me. Isabel, Jose is dead.” Numb. I could not and would not feel. Not really aware of what I was doing, I walked towards Liv and together we went to her room. I burst into tears. I could no longer repress the overwhelming grief of losing a classmate. Liv and I called other classmates to confirm that Jose was actually gone. By the time I called my parents I was hysterical. That afternoon my eighth grade class and their parents gathered at St. Michael’s to inform everyone about what had happened and help ease the pain. Nothing could ease the pain of a drunken woman swerving off the road and hitting Jose while he rode his bike with another classmate of mine.
That night I experienced an unsettling epiphany. Children have the tendency to believe that, because they are young and have their entire lives ahead of them, they are impervious to anything that may cause them serious harm or kill them. In a moment of sheer terror I realized that I could die. I was not guaranteed a long, happy life simply because I was born. I had experienced the death of an elderly person, but it was natural for an old person to die. It was unnatural and wrong for a thirteen-year-old to die. A sapling had been swept away in a flash flood. There was no warning and no time for him to prepare himself for the coming storm. The rest of the woods remained intact except for the void where Jose had been unjustly uprooted and carried off. He left behind both his parents and two sisters along with the many lives he had touched. Everyone experienced the flash flood and some will never recover. In light of the tragedy, I learned that there is a reason roots grow so deep into the ground. A tree’s roots give it life. We are all rooted in our communities, families, countries, religions, sports teams, and clubs. Through those roots we gain strength. Whatever natural disaster may come, our roots are there to anchor us and keep us grounded despite the hurricanes, tornados, or tsunamis. We never know what could happen to us, but losing Jose taught me to be grateful for the things I have thus far and realize that I could lose everything in a second. I was not prepared for that loss, but I know now to be grateful for every day and for the wonderful people in my life with whom I am blessed. Because of Jose, I no longer take the precious gift of life for granted.