Last voicemails, hairbrushes, pipes, and calendars.
We spend so much of our waking lives avoiding death—in more ways than one. When it comes to talking about the inevitable, it isn’t always easy. So the Orange Dot is aiming to shine a light on these stories, in hopes that it may help others. The After Series features essays from people around the world who’ve experienced loss and want to share what comes after.
Ten years ago today, my friend, Keith Shawn Smith, died in a freak accident. Keith was my Resident Advisor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He was small in height, enormous in personality—part colonel, part stand-up comic, part Mary J. Blige, if that makes any sense. He was the kind of guy who didn’t drink alcohol but had more fun than his friends who did, the kind of guy who had inspirational messages tacked to his wall and who lived by the motto “Keep it Movin.”
He was 20 years old when he died.
It was one of my first encounters with tragedy, as I’m sure it was for my hallmates. One minute, our friend and RA was alive, and then one night in February, he wasn’t. To call it a shock to our systems would be like calling a tornado a bit of wind. Keith’s death was, without a doubt, one of the pivotal moments in the lives of all who were close to him, myself included.
It was not, unfortunately, the only tragic experience that our college years threw at us. Approximately a week after Keith died, a UNC graduate drove an SUV through the heart of campus in an attempt to maim and kill, injuring nine people. Then, in March of 2008, our student body president, an amazing young woman named Eve Marie Carson, was murdered at random by two local men. In August of 2009, Private First Class Morris Lewis Walker—a popular UNC student, and one of the closest friends I’ll ever have—perished while serving his country in Afghanistan.
By the time I turned 23 in November of 2009, I was a far different person than I had been when I was 19, before Keith’s death and all the events that followed it. Four years in college have a major effect on everyone, but in my case, college and mortality combined to redirect the course of my life. I had been confronted with death, over and over again in a short timespan, and I had been forced to question everything. What was the meaning to my life? What was its purpose? Was an afterlife or reincarnation possible? It was a complete shake-up of my religious, spiritual and philosophical outlook.
I haven’t made too much headway on those existential questions, but I do believe I’ve made some peace with death. Am I still afraid of it? Saddened by it? Mystified by it? Oh yes.
But I try not to fight it. I try to accept it. The funny thing is, it’s strangely life-affirming.
My parents are getting older. In the car the other day, my dad asked me if I ever worried about that—about him not being around anymore.
“I want you to live many more healthy, happy years,” I told him. “Of course, I want that. At the same time, I know that worrying about you and Mom won’t do me much good. And look—I’m 29. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that 30 isn’t a given. Every year is a blessing.”
I deeply believe that. I celebrate birthdays, and getting older—new aches and pains and all—because I know people who never got to have those aches and pains. Growing old is a problem you’re lucky to have.
Yesterday would have been Keith Shawn Smith’s 30th birthday. Much in the same way that I wonder about Eve and Mo, I try to imagine what Keith’s life would be like today. My guess, based on how he was living his life in 2006, is that he’d be an up-and-comer in the business world with a young family and a strong role in his community. Also, a closet full of suits and red dress shirts; red was his color. And my guess is he’d be happy. He usually was.
The other day on Facebook, I saw a young woman’s post about a sorority sister of hers who died, unexpectedly it seemed. “My God,” I thought, “I know how that feels.”
I’m no expert, but if I could offer her any words of advice, I’d say to learn from the experience, to keep that person in her heart, and to contemplate meaning and purpose. To try, as much as humanly possible, to make her peace with death. To, in the words of Keith Shawn Smith, “Keep It Movin.”