As seen on Stumptown Books
This was not a perfect book, but it was damn close, especially for a young adult novel. Because we're all special unique snowflakes, I'm going to share a little story. It means a great deal to me, even though I know my small loss can never compare to the much greater losses experienced in most people’s lives.
I follow in my older brother's footsteps. Whatever he does, I try to do, and usually not very well. It was never a competition; it was hero worship. I just wanted us to have something in common so I could come home giddy and excited and try to get his attention. There were probably earlier instances of this happening, but as far as I recall, it began with high school sports. He joined cross country his freshman year, which at the time - I was in 5th grade - I had never even heard of. He continued the year with swim team and then track. My freshman year, I, of course, did the exact same thing. Man, I was SO BAD at all of them. My dad told me in the beginning of each season, "Listen Kaila, you don't have to win. It's not about winning. It's about not being last." That was good advice! I never did come in last at a cross country meet. But then we got to swim team. Somehow I was even worse because there were a maximum of 6 to 8 people participating in the race. At least in cross country there was safety in numbers, but now everyone there got to see just how freakin' slow I was.
The year passed, and I did a lot of activities that were the opposite of lettering in a sport. My sophomore year began and so did the new round of teams, coaches changing, and freshmen bringing in new blood. I looked forward to swim team the most because I had really enjoyed it, even if I was terrible. I love the water, and even if I’m not fast, I can swim back and forth (albeit very slowly) forever. The first day of swim team practice arrived, and all the girls formed a mass exodus of the locker room to meet our new coaches. We stood in a circle around the two men, both different coaches than the year before, and we introduced ourselves and named our favorite strokes and what we hoped to accomplish this year on swim team. This is at best an uncomfortable activity for all kids, introducing ourselves to a bunch of relative strangers, but it was made 10 times worse by being clad only in a swim suit.
And that’s when he walked in. The third coach, the unknown coach, the coach that left me in gaped mouthed stupidity.
“Hi everyone,” he grinned. “My name’s John. Sorry I’m late.” He was young, only 19 or 20, and dressed in a track suit, much more comfortable than the teenage boys stripped down to their Speedos. We finished our round of introductions and split off based upon our swim speed. I, of course, went straight for the slow side and smiled at the others joining me, ready to jump in. John walked over with a strange gait and introduced himself again, and through the blood pounding in my adolescent and hormone driven ears, he said he would be coaching our lane this season.
I went home giddy with happiness and kept smiling secretly to myself.
The next few weeks passed in delirious teenage girl bliss, bouncing and eager to go to swim practice every day to flirt naively with John. He was at least four years older than me but I certainly didn’t care. He was gorgeous and athletic and just too perfect not to fall for.
One day at swim practice, John was trying to teach us slow laners how to put an extra swirl in our stroke to get a little extra speed while our hands were in the water. Like anything could seriously help me, but I was enthralled and willing to do whatever he asked anyway, so I tried. And failed spectacularly. It was really a rather difficult maneuver to change a stroke that I’d been doing the same for years. He was patient and knowledgeable and I was trying very hard to please him, to let him know that he was teaching me something. Eventually he rolled his eyes and started shedding the track suit so he could jump in the pool with us, (with me!) and that’s when we all realized a very critical part of John’s life.
He only had one leg.
He nonchalantly unbuckled a metal contraption from his thigh and leaned it up against his chair so it wouldn’t get wet, and jumped in. We all immediately tried to look like we hadn’t been staring but he just laughed and said, “Hey guys don’t worry about it, my old leg wasn’t so hot so they made me a new one.” We giggled nervously and he shrugged. “I just hope they let me keep the other one.”
John had cancer. I’m not even sure what type it was now, or if I ever did know. It didn’t matter to me. I was irrevocably smitten. He was also about a hundred times faster swimmer than me, even with only one leg. I remember watching how perfect he was in the water, diving with only one foot, the remains of his thigh wobbling as he sailed through the air. He had a perfect smile, his favorite movie was Mystery Men
(which he watched with a girl who wasn’t me), and he sat next to me at the team spaghetti dinner where I made an utter fool of myself but he just grinned and said “You have sauce on your chin.”
My favorite warm fuzzy memory of John was the Winter Formal dance, when I had gotten up the nerve to ask a boy who went to a different school, who I had met through mutual friends. I sat at the Spaghetti Factory prior to the dance and waited in vain - stood up for the first time at only 16! I was embarrassed and angry, but not really heart broken because I had only thought the guy was cute. The following week, we had a swim meet against the asshole's school, and as he was also on swim team, I made sure to point him out to all my friends so we could glare at him. On the bus drive back home, we were discussing it and John overheard us, and he looked at me and said in mock horror, "You should have told me that was him. I would have taken off my leg and beaten him!" We all laughed at the image that created and went back to munching on trail mix.
I’ve always been rather forward because I figure, why waste our chances? So I wrote down my feelings to give to him at the end of season award ceremony. I waited with bated breath through the entire ceremony, fiddling with the envelope, but he never showed. Turns out that the spaghetti dinner was the last time I would see him.
The next year, my junior year, I spent abroad, studying in France. In February, almost exactly a year since the last time I had seen him, a mutual friend sent me word that John had passed. He included a DVD of this video
, which reduced me to blubbering tears and left my host family bewildered, thinking a family member had died. France was incredibly difficult for me to deal with, and the news came at the absolute worse time.
I realize now that it was only a high school crush. Had he continued living, I probably would have only thought about him as often as the rest of high school crushes, which is exactly never. Yet in our brief acquaintance, I had wanted him to be more so badly. Not like my story is anywhere close to what some people go through, it was just heart breaking to me as an idealistic teenager.
This book is about loss. Everyone has lost someone, which means everyone can benefit from this book. As the quote on the cover says, it is “filled with staccato bursts of humor and tragedy.” I would often find myself tearing up only to giggle at something a few pages later. It belies its label of “young adult,” and does not talk down to the reader like so many young adult novels do. Please read it, and maybe, like me, you’ll remember someone who deserves remembering. Thanks for being a great guy while you were here John. I’ll never forget you.