we are just young enough to die

March 25, 2019

Death has been on my mind for the last couple of weeks. And it seems to be in the air too.

Besides the horrendous tragedy of the Christchurch massacre, activist Amber Evan’s body was fished out of a river this past Saturday. The 28-year-old activist joins the ever-expanding list of activists who have disappeared or turned up dead under “mysterious circumstances” (aka were probably murdered by the state in cold-blood for attempting to disturb the status quo). Félicité Tomlinson, sister of Louis Tomlinson, died on the 15th from a heart attack. At the tender age of 18. Two Parkland survivors died by suicide within 48 hours of each other. One of them happened to be Sydney Aiello, who was only 19 years old.

And then there was my cousin—my favorite cousin in the whole world—who died the week prior from a heart attack, at the age of 22.

Obviously, the most common denominator in all of these deaths is that they were extraordinarily young. And perhaps, some would say, too young to die. But nothing shakes one’s faith in this so-called temporary protection that youth provides us against death than when death walks right up to your front door and whispers “boo”.

With a smile.

All of the deaths I listed above had a profound effect on me because of their ages, but none was as debilitating to hear about as was my cousin’s, whose name I can’t yet type out quite right now because doing so would cement her departure as real. We lead very similar lives. Traumatic upbringing. Semi-successful abandonment of toxic family. Passionate. Artistic. Big and bad dreamers whom both happened to be queer as fuck. The only real difference is that my cousin was a woman of science and had incredible ambitions to change the healthcare system by first becoming a doctor and going it from there, making the circumstances of her death particularly and bitterly ironic.

I’m not sure what killed her first. It could have been the fact that she was working at least three jobs to put herself through med school (and, you know, survive) or it could have been the already hefty physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, and psychological prices that come with being Black, woman, and queer. Whatever the case, it forced me to stare my flimsy mortality in the face, presumably because if I don’t switch up, I could be headed down a similar path.

Which begs the question:

Why do we think youth will protect us from death? Or that we are somehow immune to it when we are young?

While this is a question I asked right after my cousin died, it wasn’t the first time this question had popped into my head. I mean, there was that prior time where poverty and a poor diet caused me to lose my gallbladder mere months before my college graduation—at the age of 22. But the very first time this question occurred to me is when an old high school colleague of mine (we’ll call her Shaundie) had been diagnosed with ulcers.

At the age of 17.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. How in the fuck does a 17-year-old just suddenly and magically develop ulcers? Nothing about it was sudden or magical, for starters, but I attribute a large part of it was due to this taking place during junior year. Those who are familiar with the American school system know that junior year is usually the most hellish year on record for a high school student. With teachers having told you since the first day of high school that this is the year that every college worth its mettle truly pays attention to, you prepare to break your own back and your own spirit to impress them. You adopt every sport you can think of. You pick up every extracurricular you can understand. You spend hours upon hours in ACT or SAT prep until words and numbers are incomprehensible. You fight for every point on every quiz, on every test, and in every class that can bring you toward that coveted 4.0 GPA.

If you’re feeling spicy, you’ll start thinking of what particular trauma you want to expound upon for one of the fifty-eleven college essays you have to turn in. And if you’re feeling ambitious, you’ll pick up a job (or two) and talk about the struggles and trauma of the work-school balance in your college essay. And if you’re not lucky, you’ll still strike out because shit happens or because people like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin participated in pyramid schemes to get their snot-nosed kids into school and you’re SOL because your parents aren’t rich enough to by whole buildings in your name or commit blue collar crimes, while fucking up the game forever for disabled students and students of color, to get your unimpressive ass into school.

And that’s not all either. Shaundie, like myself, had the very complicated honor of being a first-generation American and the child of West African immigrants. So, in addition to dealing with the normal expectations of junior year, she also had to contend with the fact that even if her parents never admitted it to her face, she was the sum of all the hard work, money, blood, sweat, tears, and dignity that they had sacrificed to get to this country. And that the weight of all of their hopes and dreams rested on her being what they determined was successful. No matter the cost. But they never expected the cost to be as high as her good health.

Why? Because she was young.

Shaundie talked at great length about this for the purpose of awareness. She talked about it being unexpected and about them being in shock. She spoke about them lamenting how no one could have seen this coming. But I was skeptical then as I am now, in that my first thought was to ponder what they were even expecting to begin with. Even a fourth of the amount of stress that Shaundie was under would have been enough to land any adult human being in the hospital for an undetermined amount of time and make it so that ulcers would be the least of her problems. So, where was the concern then? Why didn’t anyone think to slow down and breathe (and let her breathe) then?

Perhaps it’s because youth is accompanied by this deceptive assumption that it comes pre-packaged with boundless courage, unflappable confidence, limitless strength, renewable perseverance, and inexhaustible resilience. All on an assumption. All on a promise.

But the promise of youth is not the promise that you’ll live forever, as many proud fools who are afraid of death have assumed in the past. Rather, it is the promise that you might be able to live well before it is slowly taken from you by time. But what happens when youth is snatched away from you prematurely by a generation that refuses to step aside, step down from power, and quite frankly, die? What happens when youth is slowly siphoned from your bones by an unforgiving and exploitative healthcare system that can’t be bothered to help you if you pissed yourself and didn’t happen to have the cash to back it up? What happens when youth becomes an excuse to heap extraordinary human feats on you (in Shaundie and my cousin’s case), only to not be able to afford even half of the things your parents were able to in their time, just for it to be disregarded under the guise that “you’re young. You can handle it”? What happens when youth is no longer a guarantee, because the planet in which you inhabit is two seconds from exploding and those in power can’t be bothered because they got to enjoy their fucking youth?

What happens, as I am painfully learning as people around me whom I assumed had many more years to live continue to drop like flies, is that you die. Regardless of your youth. And many of us will continue to die as long as this country continues to think that youth is an alternative to healthcare. Or that youth bars one from developing mental conditions that can change the very composition of their brain and the quality of their lives. Or that those who are young don’t deserve to be cared for like someone who might be older because what could we possibly be stressed about at this age? Or that the neglect of self in your youth doesn’t have material consequences. Or that self-care is optional when young or something “we can get to later” when it can be the one thing keeping both feet out of an early grave.

We will continue to die as long as modern society is committed to fully misunderstanding youth and its promise, because we were never too young to die to begin with.


CLARKISHA CLAPS BACK is a weekly column that humorously and honestly claps back at the world around writer Clarkisha Kent, from culture, politics, sexuality, gender and her personal life.