I am a writer. That is what I do. It’s what I breathe each day, what I cannot stop. So perhaps, as I go through these words with you today, you will see more clearly into the last few days and understand why it is only now I mention something that has had me in its grips since Friday.
As my husband drove me to work on Friday morning, I got a message notification on my phone from an Ohio number. When I listened, I heard my cousin’s voice telling me to call her. And that it was bad.
I expected…I don’t know what I expected. As my aunt said later, “Emmie, you can never be prepared for these things.” I already knew that. And yet in the instant the phone rang, calling my cousin back, waiting to hear her voice on the line, I tried to prepare for something.
I failed. You see, grief hits you like a missile to the chest. It hollows you out. Makes a hole deep inside you. The words she said were raw and somehow dirty. Wrong. She told me that my cousin Nate had been killed in a car accident early that morning.
I stopped. Everything stopped. The wrongness of it, the pale horror that dawned with those words sent grief’s missile into my heart and made a hole. The hole started out gaping and rough-hewn, and as I gasped a breath, it became larger still.
I won’t plague you with more details than that. But this is why I’m writing now and not sooner about this very personal tragedy. Until today, my uncle had requested that we keep everything off Facebook and social media. The torrent of thoughts and prayers from those who pray has been overwhelming as they fill his Facebook page with memories and love. Tomorrow I drive to Pennsylvania, and now in this quiet place, this silent hour of midnight, I have to write.
Some of you will understand why. This isn’t the first I’ve written or spoken of it; I’ve already filled pages with things I can’t share with the world. What I’ve prepared here will be given as a gift to my uncle and aunt, to show them how much I loved their son.
No one is ever really gone as long as those who survive still remember.
That’s why I’m sharing this with you, in the hopes that a few more people will remember Nathan Stuart Layton. He was my family. My cousin. My friend. This post is a tribute to him.
I’ll always remember him with blue hair.
It was summer at a truck stop trade off. Aunt passed me to uncle, and through a dingy diner came my cousin Nate.
As he walked toward me, I recalled Uncle Tim’s wedding in the hot Arizona air years earlier. We searched the town for birch beer with my sister and his, and when we poured it over chunks of vanilla ice cream, it ran in crimson rivulets. I remembered the sweetness and the pink smiles and cold against the summer heat.
As he walked toward me, 17 to my 14 now, I remember my nervousness. Yes, he was family, my cousin, but he was in high school, and what would he think of the awkward, metal-mouthed pubescent that had infested my body?
Big grin. Teeth slightly askew. Bright, smurf blue hair instead of red. Freckles. Cheekbones.
Nate showed me I could fit. He introduced me to his friends — another Nate and two Toms. He taught me to play pool.
He and Jess let me tag along to Warped Tour in Pittsburgh that year. 1999. Nate’s blue hair was by no means an oddity when there were giant green sea urchins masquerading as human heads. Nate and Jess tried crowdsurfing to Blink 182. I just tried to keep a handle on both of my slip-on sandals.
Eminem called in sick to his show that day, but we blasted Lit and Fuel in the car on the way back to New Castle.
Next came Pelee, that tiny blip of island in the midst of Lake Erie, just barely Ontario. The air was warm and gritty like sand. We drove the island in Uncle Jon’s van, chanting Limp Bizkit lyrics at the tops of our lungs with the windows rolled down. Impromtu swimming sessions. My first Canadian money. The Canadian family I’d always heard my mom talk about.
We sat on the porch of the house, talking about music and life, and my cousin Nate helped me bridge that precarious gap between junior high and high school by treating me like a friend. Like family.
There was my first party and midnight lake-diving, the water warm and black and deep. There was no talk of leaving me out of anything, and for that I loved him.
There are other memories, numerous in spite of the distance that separated his house and mine. Long phone conversations. Many, many emails. Through my teen years, Nate was there for me, even when he joined the Air Force and the emails straddled the seas.
I remember twenty years ago when he and Jess showed me how the milkweed pods burst and sent tiny white bits of fluff adrift like swirling magical dancers. I was allergic, but I didn’t care. I remember the birch beer and how it stained our mouths red.
But Nate — in my mind, he’ll always be my blue-haired cousin.
Forever in my memory and always in my heart. Nathan Layton, beloved son, daddy, brother, husband-to-be, grandson, and cousin.
December 5, 1981 – December 16, 2011
I’m not a religious person, but this series of verses from Ecclesiastes shows more wisdom than I can create on my own.
To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the heavens. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what has been planted. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
Even though this is a season of joy for many, for me and my family, it is a time to mourn and remember someone we all will love until the end of our days.