It was an early Wednesday morning in May of 2011. The sky was still dark and the stars were still glowing. There were two cups of coffee in my stomach, as I had a long drive back from Augusta to Kennesaw to work a double shift.
Shortly after reaching the interstate, I felt something that I had never felt before. I felt empty. I felt as if someone had taken the routine breathing exercise and turned it into a full-time job. The shortness of breath and the numbness in my legs put me in a state of panic, and that’s when I realized that I am not invincible and my young age did not guarantee safety. That’s when I realized that life is sacred.
The concept of being alive is something that easily can be taken for granted. Dealing with tragedy can make someone realize they are, in fact, human, and give them a new appreciation for life. For much of Augusta’s youth, recent tragedies have impacted them in a way they never thought possible. It has given them a new outlook on how to live their lives.
Over the past two years, the city has lost many young adults whose lives were just beginning. The ages range from high school students to recent college graduates.
“These guys were just starting to live their full lives,” said Jacob Thigpen, a current Augusta State student. “You can’t help but think about what might have been.” The accidents vary as much as the ages do. From excessive partying to DUIs and tragic car accidents, the pain is still the same and hits us like a ton of bricks.
When students start high school, the general mindset is to do well and graduate so they can start their “greatest four years.”
“I was just so ready to graduate and be out of high school and get on with my life,” said Katie O’Rourke, a Richmond Academy graduate.
That’s how I was. I could not wait to leave Lakeside and find something I was passionate about. Isn’t that what being young is all about? It should be a window of endless possibilities and dreams.
High school and college are times for meeting people and making memories, and having those memories build into stepping-stones for the future. When we lose someone, we never lose their memory. However, the toll that it can have on an individual and a community can be everlasting.
Perhaps one of the scariest things to think about is losing someone that you just saw or had a conversation with. Life doesn’t wait for any of us, and no one wants their last conversation with someone to be negative.
“Don’t put all of your baggage out for everyone to see. In certain situations, you need to show your joy,” Thigpen said. “God doesn’t promise us a long life, and you need to be thankful for what and who you have in your life.”
If there is one thing young people have taken away from this, it is that they are more alert. “I would absolutely say that after all these tragedies, I am definitely more cautious and my friends actually tell me I worry way too much,” said O’Rourke. “I now make sure that none of my friends ever drink and drive and that we make the smartest of decisions.”
I am a prime example. After losing a friend in 2011 to a car accident, I became paranoid and cautious with everything I did. Whether it was driving in the rain or just crossing the street, I was constantly alert as to what was around me, and I still am. It’s a sad reality that it takes something of that magnitude to make someone change and truly appreciate the life they have been given.
People can change in many ways. When something bad happens, sometimes it is the way they respond that defines who they are. Being able to get back up on your feet after being knocked down requires strength and maturity, and I think that is what Augusta’s youth have attained.
“I’m definitely not the same as I was,” Thigpen said. “Most maturity is from life events and how you evolve. God bless the kids who have passed, but it has taught me to be careful with everything. It has taught me to live each day as if it is my last.”
Perhaps the biggest change has been in building relationships with friends and family. The classic saying is, “everything happens for a reason,” so maybe such tragedies and losses are a symbol that family is the most important thing in the world.
“If today was my last day,” Thigpen added, “I would not go to a party. I would go hug my family and be with the people I love. I would want to build my relationships to the highest level possible and just say ‘thank you.’”
Events of the past few years have brought pain to many people in the community, but I truly believe that the future is looking brighter than ever. Young people are the future, and if they are able to mature and evolve now, then that could start a trend that could last for years to come.
Many young adults have a theme for life now that is much different from 2010. “I did have really bad behavior problems and caused a lot of trouble,” O’Rourke said. “My new theme for living life now is definitely for Christ, and living each day to the best of my ability and being able to help others. After all my suffering from the losses of loved ones and the life lessons I’ve learned, it has made me a better person and stronger than I’ve ever been.”
There is an old saying that the darkest part of the night is just before the dawn. The dawn is coming. The horror and pain will never go away, but the life lessons that are taught are diamonds in the rough. The young adults in our community have gained a new appreciation for life, and how they choose to lead their own. They have learned that life is sacred.
(Charlie Cason, a Lakeside High School graduate, is a journalism student at Kennesaw State University.)