First Friend Death
It was January 23, 2001 when I received the news. I could remember it clearly and distinctly. It was the day that the energy shifted from one of happiness to that of shock and sadness.
Two coworkers that I was just beginning to understand my connection and friendship with in South Korea traveled to the Phillipines for a Scuba Diving Trip. They had trained and planned for this months in advanced with Dave, a friend who was the owner of a small bar called Phillies in Haebongchon, just 20 minutes away from Itaewon in the central part of Seoul, South Korea. They had traveled together along with a few others who also joined the trip with them. Only their trainer and the owner of the restaurant survived.
Their tragic end went something like this:
Heather and Debi along with their fellow travelers were on their way to pick up another mode of transportation to Saipan, where they were going to scuba dive. They were riding in a taxi van that was just going through a green light a little after exiting the airport in Manila. As the taxi was driving through, two trucks that were racing missed the red light and hit the taxi smack dab in the middle. Debi had died instantly. Heather died at the hospital trying to hang on.
When news first broke out at work about this tragedy, calls and faxes came from the American Embassy about two Americans associated with the language school I was working at in Seoul at the time and their identities. About 10 minutes later, news was confirmed that both Heather and Debi had died. This news occurred half an hour before I was to teach my last class of the night.
When I had gotten the news, I was physically shaken and I shook for a few minutes until I could gain my composure and prepare for my lesson. The students I was teaching that day were one of Debi’s favorite classes to teach, so the tragedy became even more personal.
News of a loved one, no matter if it is a friend or family member shakes one to the core and is always a shock for the most part. When it happens for awhile amongst family members, you tend to get used to it. When it happens to close friends, and you’ve experienced news of their deaths for the first time, the feeling is very different. In my case, when I received the news, it felt as if a spiritual earthquake hit my soul and I had lost balance.
I never taught the full lesson that night. In fact, I couldn’t and I told my current class, Debi’s students the news. They understood and so did my supervisor’s that night. In fact, I think I gained a lot of respect for my honesty and what I did by all.
Before leaving the office to head to a coworker’s house for a gathering, we stood in a moment of silence with a lit candle in the lobby. My coworker Ross, who was Heather and Debi’s best friend sat at the table and wept with myself and two of the secretaries comforting him and feeling his pain.
“It shouldn’t have happened. I can’t believe it,” were the thoughts an words that were echoed that night by those we knew and met. A few days later, I went privately to a Chogyesa Temple to say a special prayer for them with a friend of mine. Little did I know that this would be the spot for a special and very moving funeral ceremony a few days later after my visit. As it turns out, Debi was a Buddhist and to have a service where her former students and friends could attend was about a good a tribute as any. In addition, before the day of the service, I held down the fort and made sure students who were still planning on studying that day were taken care of, because understandably no one wanted to work, and literally the whole language school that I worked at was still in shock. I felt that just like Heather and Debi’s work ethic, I’d take on the same attitude and pay tribute to that as well.
Going to a Buddhist ceremony is very moving and interesting no matter what religion you are. At the simplest level, it a ceremony in which sutras are recited for the spirit of loved ones and allowing them to pass into the afterlife. In addition, a prayer offering for the dead is given by at least one member in groups of two or three people who walk up to the alter in the form of water and rice and then 3 bows towards the spirit and a bow towards the congregation. I was able to participate in this and felt them smiling and giving me a hug in return. I with my Catholic roots along with my coworker Ross with his Jewish roots never felt more connected to the afterlife and spirit as we did during this ceremony.
After the ceremony, a special gathering to remember Heather and Debi through poetry, songs, and stories were shared in a special room above one of the quarters of the Chogyesa temple compound. We laughed and cried through it all. It was also recorded for Heather and Debi’s family when their memorial services would be held in their hometown.
This time period for me really forced me to face death in a different way. I always knew what death in the family was like, but as for friends, this was my first time. I am grateful for the time I did spend with Heather and Debi as well as the lessons I learned from them. I also became a lot closer to my current coworkers who began to see who I really was and how I could be there for them in their time of need. It truly was a lesson learned.