For years now I’ve kept a news clipping wedged in the pages of an old scrapbook as a reminder of my mortality. The headline reads: School in mourning for girl killed in crash. Beneath the headline is a picture of a blonde beauty at the cusp of becoming a woman. Her name was Shauna Casteen. She was an honor student and cheerleader at my high school. She had been 16 for five short days when she was driving down the road and saw her boyfriend going the opposite direction toward his home. They stopped in the middle of the road, exchanged a few words and planned to meet at his house. When Shauna attempted to make a U-turn, a truck slammed into her driver’s car seat.
And that was it.
One slip of judgment, one fatal blow and she was gone. A sweet 16 forever.
Shauna was my first brush with death, so the memories of her wake and funeral have stayed with me all these years. I remember looking at her for the last time in an open casket at her wake and wondering how they had covered up all the bruises. One of my friend’s dads was an EMT who responded at the scene. The story goes, he held her crushed, limp body in his arms while she took her last breath. Now she was lying there so peacefully in a cushion of satin. She reminded me of a china doll – her corn silk hair flowing down to her shoulders, perfect pink lips, rosy cheeks. A sleeping beauty. Only I had to tell myself (over and over) that she wasn’t going to wake up.
The church was packed the day of her funeral. It seemed the whole high school – the jocks, the preps, the skaters, the nerds, everyone – came to say good-bye to a friend or maybe just a classmate they had casually passed in the hallway or sat next to in homeroom. I saw glassy eyes everywhere, dripping an endless stream of tears. My own tearful deluge surprised and even embarrassed me. In the car on the way back home, I said to my mom something like, “I shouldn’t be crying so much. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I wasn’t even good friends with her, but it could have been me. It could have been any of us.”
Maybe that’s why we all mourned Shauna’s death so much. She really could have been any of us, and she was proof we weren’t invincible. At the time of her death, most of my friends and I were buoyant after discovering the newfound freedom of driving. In my case, I’d turned 16 within days of Shauna’s birthday and we even drove the same kind of car. (Maybe that’s why I always think of her during this time of year when my birthday comes or maybe it has something to do with the springtime and the Easter season when we celebrate new life. Whatever the case, she usually comes to mind around this time.) As teenagers, my friends and I all took risks on the road, made U-turns, rolled to stops and raced through yellow lights. But Shauna’s fatal accident intruded our teenage idyll. Suddenly driving, our whole lives, weren’t so carefree. I learned of her death at an evening soccer game. My friends and I sat on the bleachers and went numb. I drove one of my best friends home. I gripped the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles turned white. We said nothing, and I drove far too slowly.
For months after her death, I couldn’t stop wondering why she was the one who died and not me. (God knows, I made a lot of stupid mistakes the first few weeks of driving.) And even though I strongly believed in an afterlife, I wept for Shauna and all the things she’d never experience. It didn’t seem fair that she’d never go to her senior prom or that she’d never graduate from college or even high school, get married or have children.
Even now I look at her picture and feel a crushing sadness for all of her unrealized dreams. But I also feel a sense of purpose. In some ways, Shauna became a martyr for me. I drove more cautiously after she died, but she affected more than just my life behind the wheel. She made me count my blessings – the fact that I had a chance to wake up each day and live my life, even if I had a big zit on the tip of my nose or was having a bad hair day. Shauna reminded me that life is tenuous and vanity worthless. And that image of her in her casket – so perfect, so beautiful – is always with me. There she is at the height of youth in her newspaper photo, and I can still see her frozen in time, lying there in her coffin with flawless skin and soft, long blonde hair with a serene, carefree expression.
I admit. I’m too vain at times. I’m too caught up in all those superficial details of life and sometimes I can’t help but wonder what Shauna would be thinking seeing so many women (and men, too) zap out wrinkles with Botox or worry about when they’ll finally be able to afford that bigger house. I can’t help but think she would have loved to get a few wrinkles and even some gray, wiry hair and wouldn’t have minded living in a smaller house if her family dwelled there. I’m sure she would have embraced stretch marks if it meant she could have a child. I doubt she would have complained if her flowers wilted on her wedding day if she’d just had the chance to be a bride.
Beauty is only skin deep, they say. Life is short, we hear. And isn’t Shauna proof? Tomorrow I may wake up a few pounds heavier, looking older. I may not be able to trade in my old car for a newer version. I may spill hot coffee all over my new shirt. But tomorrow, and every day is a day Shauna didn’t get to live. So I dedicate this day to Shauna and all those whose earthly lives were cut unexpectedly short, and I pray I’ll do more than just drive safely – I pray I’ll live more fully.