Prove You’re Alive
by Andrea Johnson
I remember when I first learned that my class would be getting a new kid.
My close friend and classmate, Jason, and I sat outside the school on the curb on
the last day of school our sophomore year and talked about it. “What if he
doesn't like us?” we wondered. “What are the chances he’ll like us?” And then
we proceeded to construct a mathematical formula to determine what percent
chance there was that he would like each member of our class individually and
then the class as a whole. It’s funny, looking back, how we never bothered to
consider that we might not like him. I don’t think it was really ever an option.
Nathan’s arrival to Paradise Adventist Academy was the most exciting change
in our class as far back as we could remember. He had a crazy hairstyle with
bleached streaks amidst his black spiky mane. He wore bandanas and clothes
that looked like they came from Hot Topic. Living close to Chico, known as
the party town, we’d seen people like this before but we never thought one
would come to our school. Not only that, but he was in our class. He was our
peer and we were all excited to see what he would be like.
Like any normal kid in a new situation, he started out quiet, but after a bit of calm observance, he warmed up and decided we sheltered kids were alright in his book. Nathan became the glue in our class; he really brought people together with his goofiness. He was crazy in ways we’d never seen before. He licked my arm on multiple occasions. He kissed Jason on the cheek on Valentine’s Day while wearing lipstick. He ran around on all fours. He made pterodactyl noises. What made all these quirks so incredible was how he used them. Many people act odd to annoy people or to get attention. Nathan used his quirks to bestow affection on everyone. Not a single person at PAA could avoid witnessing or receiving these random acts of Nathan. And everyone loved him for it. Our student body even made a spirit day in his honor, “Dress Like Nathan Day.” The whole high school participated.
During his first year at PAA, Nathan was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Being the fighter that he was, he went without medication for a long time. He was a strong believer in natural remedy and he entered the war against medication wholeheartedly. Nathan never saw medication as a long-term solution. He only used medication on an “as-needed” basis. Occasionally, a strong flare-up would occur and he would take medication. Although this sent the Crohn’s into remission, he hated every minute he was taking medication. He never felt truly himself while taking it. As part of his battle plan, he drank kombucha, a slightly fermented health tea, every day, amped up his exercise routine, and ate healthier than anyone I've ever met. If it weren't for the Crohn’s, I’m convinced he could have lived forever.
It was during my senior year that I really got to know Nathan. We began hanging out away from school. I would have baking parties or movie nights on the weekend and he would always tag along with Jason, who had become his best friend. At these movie nights, Nathan always nagged me to watch Fight Club with him. It’s this really intense mind-trip film about fighting the system and living with purpose. He had gotten me to read the book and I knew that there was going to be too much blood for me to handle. Knowing I wasn't ready for the intensity but also knowing that it was his favorite movie of all time, I promised him that as soon as I was mentally and emotionally ready to watch it, I would inform him.
As the last half of the school year began, our class was preparing to participate in the annual senior marriage project. The girls have to wait until someone proposes to find out who they are paired with. One day I was practicing choir after school when suddenly, Nathan burst into the choir room. He was dressed in bright green cut-off sweat pants, a black and white striped shirt with a vest on top and a purple bandana. On anyone else, this ensemble would have been unusual, but Nathan was always making bold fashion choices; I didn't think anything of it. Next thing I knew, Nathan had picked me up, flung me over his shoulder and was taking me outside. He placed me in a cardboard box with the words “Pirate Ship” scrawled on the side in black sharpie. He turned to me and said, “Arr! Marry me or walk the plank!” I of course said “yes” and then he gave me my wedding ring: not a piece of costume jewelry from Claire’s like most of the guys in my class had done, but a clear plastic ring with a flower design that turns pink in the sun.
We spent the next several months planning our spectacular wedding, “getting married”, and even raising a baby, doll of course, together. I personally think we had more fun than any other “couple.” Our marriage plans included a ceremony on Earth Day while we were barefoot, Thai food at the reception, and wedding colors chosen to match the main ingredient in our favorite Thai dish, eggplant. All the details were uniquely catered to fit both our bold personalities, which Nathan helped me learn to be comfortable showing. Excitement was valued over practicality because, heck, why shouldn't weddings contain craziness and spontaneity? We took all our ideas and ran with them. Full speed. Straight ahead. Together, we sprinted into our own imaginary sunset. It was the fictional wedding of the century.
That was three years ago. Then this last spring, Nathan got really sick again. I had spent the year in Costa Rica and the previous summer in Spain so I hadn't seen him for a year. Needless to say, I was anxious to meet up with him. When I saw him at the beginning of June, he seemed to be doing well even though he’d lost quite a bit of weight. We made plans to watch Fight Club together the next week. I finally felt I had reached the point where I could handle the intensity of the movie and I was ready to make good on my promise to watch it with him before watching it with anyone else. The following week, I texted him to finalize plans. He texted me back saying he had just gotten out of the hospital. He said it so nonchalantly that I was barely concerned beyond the initial “Oh no!” reaction. He brushed it off as nothing and his confidence kept me calm. He said we could watch the movie at his house the next night with Jason, but he made a point to tell me that he had lost some weight and might not be his usual energetic self. I replied without hesitation, “I will love you forever and always.”
The next day I headed to Nathan’s house where he and Jason were already horsing around. We situated ourselves and commenced the viewing. The thing I remember most about the movie was the intro. The intro contained a written disclaimer made by Tyler Durden, one of the lead roles of the movie. The disclaimer contained this phrase: “Prove you’re alive.” I remember seeing that and thinking, Oh! No wonder Nathan loves this movie! That is so him! I made it through the movie unscathed and then we headed out to the Jacuzzi to discuss life. We talked about all sorts of things but naturally, our conversation turned towards Nathan and his health. He explained that he had been having complications with Crohns and that there was an abscess in his colon, which was why he had been in and out of the hospital recently. His plan was to go to a clinic in Florida where he could better pursue natural methods of clearing up the abscess. Both Jason and I were proud of him for wanting to pursue natural methods but we were also worried. An abscess can be a big deal. We both asked him about taking medication and about surgery. He explained that surgery was a definite possibility but that he wanted to give the clinic a try. His confidence silenced my fears and we ended the evening with promises to all hang out again when I was done working at summer camp.
Less than a month later, on July 17, I got a call from my mom while I was working at camp. She didn't leave a message. That was the moment I knew something was wrong. I tried to call her back but she didn't pick up. Trying to remain calm, I checked my facebook to get my mind off the non-existent message. As I scrolled through the newsfeed, the story began to emerge. I saw a post by Jason saying that Nathan was in the hospital and that he was going to have an emergency surgery. Jason asked that everyone pray for Nathan. I promptly commented asking for an update. Less than a minute later, I received a message from my friend, Cassie, confirming my greatest fears. Nathan had passed away.
I can’t even begin to convey my feelings at that moment. If you've ever lost someone, you know what it’s like. If you haven’t, I will simply offer this: It is the truest form of heartbreak. I never thought my heart could be broken by someone I didn't love romantically, but it can. I loved him. I loved him with all my heart and losing him broke my heart. The thing I never knew about heartbreak is that it’s a literal, physical pain. On your chest, over your heart, you feel a burn, a pain that you know isn't there because someone punched you; you feel it inside. That’s something they never tell you.
The next Monday, July 23, we had the memorial service. If ever there was a perfect memorial, this was it. It had all the usual elements of a memorial service: pictures, music, shared memories, tears, and even laughter. For some reason, it felt like Nathan had planned it. When he graduated from high school, Nathan surprised us all by singing. He had been in choir, but we’d never actually heard him sing. He sang, Lean on Me, at graduation, with a few other guys. Jason, Jason’s dad, a few other close friends of Nathan, and I sang it at the service. Even though it was a tribute to Nathan, it felt like encouragement from him, encouragement to lean on one another to get through our grief.
On August 15, a group of us went to scatter Nathan’s ashes. We went to the river to a place behind the Feather River Hospital that we locals refer to as Balls Falls. It’s a secluded spot on a river with a thirty-foot jump. It was Nathan’s favorite place to go. Jason told us how the first time Nathan went, he was really afraid to jump. Nathan took his time, but eventually he did jump and he never looked back. As we neared Balls Falls, we saw Craig, Nathan’s dad. Through some clever and careful maneuvering, he had managed to get the urn with Nathan’s ashes down the rocks, unbroken. In the spirit of Nathan, alive and powerful, we all jumped off the rock and into the water below. Together we swam around and enjoyed the cool water after the long hike.
Gradually, we all came together on a rock on the opposite bank, circling Nathan’s ashes. Craig began to speak. He shared the story of Elijah and Elisha, where Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Craig challenged us to consider Nathan’s spirit, his character, and to choose a trait Nathan carried that we would like to live out. He urged us to share our choice with each other and to hold each other accountable to the challenge. With Nathan’s ashes safely deposited in the river, we all dispersed, contemplating Craig’s challenge. At the time, I couldn't decide which part of Nathan’s spirit I wanted to claim. He was so loving, so affectionate, so inclusive, and so open. How could I possibly choose just one trait?
A few days later, I was thinking about my last day with Nathan when I suddenly recalled the quote, “Prove you’re alive.” That was it! That’s what I wanted, what I want. I want Nathan’s boldness for life. I want to prove my existence by the way I live and by the way I love. That’s exactly what Nathan did. He never held back affection and he never backed out on experiences for fear of what might happen. He overcame his fears and lived without inhibition. I believe the reason that we all felt Nathan’s loss so strongly was because of the amazing life he had. When he passed away, a candle didn't go out, a bonfire went out. But his legacy lives on. I still feel that burn in my chest. And it hurts; it hurts every part of me. But it reminds me how much I cared about him and how much he cared about me.
In a way, that burn is the reason I’m sharing this story. Losing Nathan lit a fire in my heart. It intensified my passion for life. I want to be held accountable to my choice to live like Nathan. I don’t ever want to forget Nathan’s legacy. So hold me to my promise. Remind me
to run and to jump and to sing and to kiss and to love. But most of all, remind me to prove I’m alive.
Our "baby"-to-be, Riddick Emery Boyle