The afternoon sunlight streamed in through the rafters, as person after person — student, faculty, family, friend — crowded together in this hallowed gathering space to honor Kyra Kurt Willner.
I had never known her. She was a young woman who was killed in a motor vehicle accident 9 days before Christmas, and 15 days before her 22nd birthday, this past December.
She was just words on a page, pixels on a computer screen. A friend of a friend that I happened to know. We had never spoken, our paths had never crossed, and yet here I was, sitting and biting back tears like everyone else as her father remembered the youngest of his four children. Gone, but not forgotten.
Because that’s not how time is supposed to work. We’re each supposed to be given a long and beautiful life, decades filled to the brim with memories and friends and children to pass along our stories. It’s not supposed to end in 20 years; it’s not supposed to end with a mother mourning the loss of her baby girl, a girl who’s just beginning to figure her life out.
And as I walked home, the click-clack of my heeled shoes echoing on the bricks — upon the very bricks that Kyra herself had walked just weeks ago — I couldn’t help but wonder what people would find in my notebooks and in my drawers and on my hard-drive and say about me, if my time were cut “too short” too. Would people say the same things tomorrow that they would 10 years from now? 20? 50?
“I suppose a fire that burns that bright is not meant to last.”
This is a picture taken shortly after my 10th birthday, in the American Girl Doll Store cafe in Chicago, Illinois.
I can still remember turning towards my mother, smiling exuberantly at the euphoria of it all. I can still remember the feel of that velvety-soft track-suit jacket from Justice, and how much I loved wearing it every single day until my arms got too long to fit the sleeves. I can still remember the pull of that aquarius necklace around my neck, and how frantic and sad I was when I lost it at the mall three months later. I can still remember being the happiest girl alive, spending the day in a foreign city with arguably my best friend in the entire world.
What’s peculiar about the passage of time is that sometimes it can seem like such an unfathomable void — years and years of time and space — while sometimes barely a breath seems to have passed.
I celebrated the coming of a new decade a week ago — 20 years of laughter, of sorrow, of pain, and of accomplishment — in the very same way that I ushered in my first decade: watching “High School Musical.”
And thinking back to when I was just 10 years old, transfixed by the melodic magic of Troy and Gabriella for the very first time, I realized just how fragile and vulnerable my world had been then — and all that it has become now.
I was still a quiet, reserved student, shielding myself behind a pair of glasses, only venturing onstage at dance recitals behind a group of “older girls.” I hadn’t caught a glimpse of my first ocean wave, or experienced the exotic wonders of traveling somewhere beyond the revered gates of Disney World. I had yet to experience the horrendously trying “middle school” years — a cluster of hormones, relationships, and anxiety I’m sure we wish we all could have avoided — or experienced high school, for that matter.
Yoga was still a mystic art performed in the far-off corners of Asia, and I had yet to collide with the expressive world of poetry. Little did I know that I had already met some of my closest friends, but that I would have so many more faces to meet in this preciously fleeting life. I was a bear in hibernation, a cocooned butterfly on the verge of spreading her wings.
I had no idea what would be in store for the rest of my life — and I still have very little clue at the start of this decade.
This last photo is one of the only recent photos of myself, captured in an equally rare candid moment by my brother. I was clearing my throat and hadn’t realized he was starting to take my picture. I think I gave him my signature eyebrow arch a few seconds later.
On the morning of my 20th birthday, I received such an overwhelming amount of well-wishes from friends and family, both far and near, both recently made friends and distant relations, that I was moved to a rare case of tears.
Who would have thought that the nerdy girl in the front of the class, with a whizzing mind and the inability to pick a friend who didn’t relocate every two years, would turn out the way she did? Who would have thought I’d be preparing to go to Cambodia in less than four months, or have curly hair and double-pierced ears, or have an unquenchable passion for sharing stories with others? Who would have thought I’d have lost so much of myself, only to regain a better part of my soul?
These last 10 years have taught me more about myself — my limits, my purpose — the world around me, and the choice we all have to seize new opportunities each and every day. These last 10 years scraped me raw, but built me up in new and surprising ways. These last 10 years I am eternally grateful for, for all of the lessons and the laughs, the people and the possibilities, I have received.
And if these last 20 years are all I have, I’d say I’ve lived them well. I’ve lived them like Kyra lived hers — fully, completely, and without regret.
This essay also appears on Medium