I Waited 9 Years to Write This: On The Death of a Friend

Thank you to the McCausland family for reviewing this post before it was published.

On February 1st, 2014, in the early hours of the morning, my friend Sarah McCausland was struck and killed by a drunk driver. She was walking back to campus with her friends near Bard College. She had only recently turned 19. She wasn’t alone. Her friend Evelina Brown was also killed in that very same incident. 

It’s been 9 years since Sarah’s death, and every year since I’ve told myself I would write publicly about her—about the days and years that followed—and every year I haven’t. Part of the reason I haven’t is that I didn’t want to make Sarah’s death about me, “to take up space in Sarah’s story” as a close friend characterized it. This was her family’s nightmare, and the last thing I’d want would be to disrespect Sarah’s memory or to make their lives harder. But if I’m being honest, part of the reason why I didn’t write anything was simply because I didn’t know what I wanted to say—just that I wanted to say it.

So why is this year any different?

A few months ago Sarah’s dad Andy contacted me. This wasn’t necessarily out of the blue—since her passing, I’d contact her family, at minimum, on the anniversary of the incident to let them know that I hadn’t forgotten, to ensure they knew that Sarah mattered to me. But this time it was for something in particular: the McCauslands were making a documentary about Sarah’s life and they were wondering if they could interview me.

I said yes. But I wasn’t without reservations. The thing I’ve discovered about the death of a friend is that it evokes some pernicious questions in one’s mind. The most fundamental of which being: was I truly her friend? How can I even know I was her friend if there is no concrete way to prove it? From the outside, it may seem an odd, even teenage-like logic to seek validation from the friendship of a now-deceased person. Perhaps it’s because the death of a friend cements their temporal likeness in your mind—who they were at the time of their death is who they will ever be—in addition to cementing who you were when they passed. In essence, death freezes relations, indelibly stamping them into the sands of time. In that way, it makes a kind of sense that I’d still ask the kinds of questions natural to me at that time.

A picture of Sarah, her best friend Emily, and I
A picture of Sarah, her best friend Emily, and me

So yes, I’ve never been certain about who I was to Sarah. But for 9 years since her death, I’ve been wrestling about who she was to me. Her father’s interview only sped up the process.

First let me say this: like many once-teens, high school was a deeply dark period in my life. It is in no way hyperbole when I say that my memories from that period are shaded as if a pall had been cast over every experience. Unsurprisingly, it’s because I was a deeply depressed adolescent who struggled with inchoate, existential issues that someone of my emotional maturity could not yet overcome. I didn’t have the methods I needed. But Sarah was one of the few lights in the dark, and it’s not an exaggeration. Sarah truly was a light. When I saw Sarah in the hall between classes, or on the weekends at some friend’s house, I can recall memories of a different sort: memories of color that to this day allow me to access a kind of vibrancy from that period that most recollections simply do not evoke.

It’s not that I was in love with her or anything. Ask anyone who knew her and they’ll agree that Sarah’s personality was magnetic when she wanted it to be. There’s no other way to put it. Sarah had the ability to turn on a kind of gravitational pull of personality, lightening the air around her with an improvisational wit and joviality that you were powerless to deny. And if you were one of the lucky few she chose to partner with in a round of intellectual improvisation, trading jokes and witticisms, it felt like lightning. 

That was the thing about Sarah, she was so quick. And she was quick because she was smart, really smart. She played multiple instruments, all self-taught. She was a straight-A student. And she had the most wonderful, moving voice that constantly touched those around her. I’ve linked a recording of one of her serenades below.

Because Sarah was so smart, she could read people quickly. And because she could read people quickly, she tended not to want to put up with their bullshit. This was fine if you were on her good side. But certainly it would put you in an uncomfortable situation if you found yourself on the other side of the coin. 

Which brings me to my interview for her documentary. Honestly, I don’t entirely remember all the questions asked of me. Before the interview I know we had a lovely lunch with her father Andy and her mother Sandy. But when we went to the makeshift studio in the back of an office converted for filming, and I started answering questions, I think I accessed a side of myself that is habitually shut off.

I do recall a few of things I said though. One is a memory of a lesson I was given during Sarah’s wake. It was one of the few times I can remember ever being in a church service. The priest speaking at the time said that he and the McCauslands believe that it does a disservice to the memory of the deceased to paint of them a rosier picture than that which was strictly true. That stuck with me. I think it’s because Sarah and I were so deeply allergic to inauthenticity. And so to paint her as perfect truly would have been wrong.

That’s what I meant when I implied above that Sarah could also be harsh. She judged people like I judged people—it’s why I liked her! She dealt with the absurdity of adolescence with a cutting humor and, like me, perhaps an unforgiving lack of patience for perceived artifice. I could not articulate it at the time, but her casual confidence and intellectualism was a source of connection and a temporary palliative to a deeply depressed, lost teenager. 

Sarah’s death is still painful. Most markedly to her family, whose tragedy is beyond words. To her parents, certainly. But also to her younger sister Tori whose life’s trajectory undoubtedly shifted after that night. And not to mention some friends who were unabashedly closer to Sarah than I was. Maybe others haven’t experienced it, but at least to me one of the obstacles of losing a friend is the knowledge that while they meant so much to me, they meant even more to others. For me it naturally leads to the question: who am I to write about Sarah? I know for a fact she was more to others than to me. Am I somehow disrespecting her name if I write about her then? Or how about an even more cutting, uncomfortable question: If she were alive today, would we have been as close? I can’t confidently say we would have. Which leads me back to the fundamental question, the kind that I think Sarah might have asked: is writing about Sarah publicly in some way performative? I think the answer to this last question is yes. But as a brilliant actor, Sarah was no stranger to performance. She knew there was utility in it—catharsis even, for the performer and audience both. That gives me some solace. To the other questions I raise, I don’t have the answers. I still struggle with these and questions like them, and therefore with the legitimacy of my words and mourning.

All I can say is I take some solace in knowing that at least I’m still trying, still reaching out to her family, still working with her picture next to my desk.

When you lose a friend, especially when you’re young, it leaves an indelible mark, as I’ve said. Like any trauma, it sears into your brain, as it did mine. Back in February 2014, I was a sophomore in college. I was also a resident assistant (RA), which means I was paid to watch over other students in the dorm. I liked to think I was a pretty good RA—straddling the perilous social line that allowed residents to do what the fuck they wanted so long as they knew not to let you see it, so long as they were safe and kind to each other. One day, being the upstanding RA that I was, I decided that an unused dorm room should be accessible to everyone: why close it off to the people? So I used my building key to unlock the door and proceeded, with a few choice residents who would actually become my closest friends at the college, to build the biggest pillow fort in Lake Forest College history (according to us). It was there that weekend, within that not-so-college-sanctioned pillow fort, that I received a phone call from my hometown best friend. I knew something was wrong because even in 2014, you didn’t really call people out of the blue. I answered the phone to crying on the other end. It was there, surrounded by pillows and blankets fastened to the ceiling tiles that I received the news of Sarah’s death. I received it succinctly, with slight confusion, and few other emotions that seemed appropriate for the time. Suddenly, I was deeply aware of my surroundings, ashamed and self-conscious. You can probably imagine why. While I was being childish in college, encased in a pillow fort, Sarah died. It wasn’t right. Whatever that situation was, its character instantly altered my perspective.

That memory, of learning of Sarah’s death as I did, is one I returned to often in the intervening months. Sarah’s death affected so many of her contemporaries’ lives—mine is simply the only example I can speak to. For me, I think it sped up the rate at which I shed my adolescence, a catalyst that only fast-forwarded me further into the fertile ground of intellectualism and academia like so many before me who used it as an escape. I expect it also contributed to my leaving the US altogether. The following year, in the winter of 2015, I left the US to study in about as remote a place as I could find: Botswana, Africa. It was there, surrounded by the Kalahari desert, that I wrote to myself a month into my six-month semester abroad:

Today I woke up in a tent in Botswana, approximately eight thousand five hundred and thirteen miles away from Illinois. Yet, still my friend Sarah’s presence remains as strong as ever to me. I am haunted by the tragedy of her death one year ago today, but I am embraced by her memory. 

Since then, I have done work to limit the burden of Sarah’s death on my psyche, though I’m sure there is plenty of room to psychoanalyze what I’ve written here. But after all this time, here’s what I think is important: there’s never a good time to have a friend’s life stolen from them, from their family. Sarah’s death has impacted so many. From her death there were many hard lessons, imparted onto me and surely onto others. Mine isn’t the real story. I struggled to write about her death for long both because I never fully internalized her loss, and because I didn’t want to make it about me. The story that I wish I could have written is that of all the accomplishments Sarah would surely have had today, were she still alive. Instead this is what I have to offer:

Today is the 9 year anniversary of Sarah and Evilina’s deaths. I know their families miss them dearly, and so too do their friends like me who have each struggled in their own way to properly mourn their loss. These were young lives snatched from our world all too soon. There was so much they would surely have done–notable to themselves, to their families, and possibly to the world. I hope you are wise enough not to need a story like this to avoid drinking and driving. But if this is the kick you need, so be it. Don’t drink and drive. You risk shattering lives.

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