Reflections on a birthday, youth and “being old.”

I first wrote this in July 2009, one year after a high school friend of mine was killed through an act of domestic violence. 3 years and counting after her death, I’m still processing my shock. I never thought I would know someone who was killed because of the will of another. The only thing I could think in the days following her death was, “I’m a girl from Kansas! This doesn’t happen to people from small town America!” But it does. So here are my thoughts regarding her life, death, and what I’m to change.

I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of “old” this month.

There are a few reasons as to why I’m thinking about being old, and yes, one of them is that I just had a birthday.

At times I have called myself “old.” In a room of Junior High students, being twice their age would make me old…at 23, 24, or 25 years of age. When asked, I would say what ever number came into my head first, “13! 54! 39! 77!” Yet, there are the times where I get tired and want my own mattress rather than pulling an all-nighter or sleeping on a couch. My knees ache and swell when I play sports or wear my cute pin-point heels for a walk up and down Kirkwood. Vanity has painful consequences beyond the ego.

Last summer, I thought myself to be old. I was old because, not only had I reached a legal drinking age 5 years prior, but also because I could remember Ronald Reagan as President and the 1988 Olympics (Winter and Summer). I was called that in jest by some fellow camp staffers, yet half way through the summer the word “old” wasn’t a joke anymore; it had a bitter sting. I had just heard of a classmate who never saw her 26th birthday. Suddenly, I felt very young.

The events of that week in 2008 have been more strenuous than I initially would ever admit. I had just regained contact with Jana less than one year prior to her death. I did not know how to handle the news. We were not close friends, but she was a classmate that I always wanted to know what was going on with her life and have her views sharpen my own for the better as we disagreed in pretty much any social, religious, or political area.

Halfway through my summer of emotional turbulence in 2008, I was looking forward to my weekend break. I saw a Facebook status that piqued my concern and then a memorial group. Needing a Kansas news source, I looked up the Lawrence Journal World online.

My fears were confirmed.

Very few of my memories of Hays High do not include Jana’s presence. She was one of my first acquaintances when my family moved to Hays in August 1996. Fast-forward through four years of honors classes, musicals, piano lessons, choir adventures, and dinner shows. I was thankful for her straight-talk, of which I was reminded while sorting and preparing to move. I found a note she gave me from our freshman year that was basically, “Get over yourself and be happy. I’ve been through crap too and have just made the choice to live in spite of it.” I loved her honesty when dealing with my anxiety and drama. During Latin one day, she gave me a nickname my family has enjoyed and used since that day: Princess Random. I might still have the crude notebook paper sign that she drew of a crown and my new title.

Jana and I were of the few people from our high school class that enrolled at KU. Although I didn’t see her much after the first semester, I always enjoyed the times we could bond in our Western Kansas background. Shortly before she declared Women’s Studies as her major, I saw her at the music library. She expressed a readiness to be doing something that would help people, not only by her college major but by her action. We didn’t see each other much during college, whenever I was fortunate to see her, she had the same spark and passion that I always knew.

I reached a point in the last month where the labels “domestic violence” and “death” seemed as though I was lying to myself. I thought that using softer terms to describe the cause would take away its sting. For whatever cathartic reason, when the words, “my friend was murdered” came out of my mouth, my grieving was able to move forward.

But that’s the funny thing about grief; you must wrestle with all your doubts and questions. It is not good enough to simply be sad and let time numb the pain or adjust your life to having an ever-present dark cloud. I would not say there is a completion of the grief where whatever set it in action is “gotten over,” but rather acceptance. Grief is not a synonym for sadness; it is the process of facing reality after expectations and hopes change course.

It’s a whole new kind of grief when you know someone whose life was intentionally harmed by another person. It is different than if you know someone who was sick or died as a result of an accident. There was no purposeful or evil intent through another person. As I stated before, I was not a close friend of Jana’s when she died, nor even in high school. There were many others who knew her better. Yet, she is ever-present in my teenage memories.

When Jana was murdered, my inquiry into Orthodox Christianity had just past the 6 month mark. There were many theological questions spinning in my head. I still haven’t found all the answers that I want regarding judgment and death; my questions will be addressed in good time. But I have been encouraged to pray for Jana, to grieve as I need, and to remember her.

Quirky as it may sound, I remember Jana with a pair of shoes. I chose retail therapy the weekend after she died. I needed brown sandals, I needed a place where my mind could race a thousand miles a minute, and I needed silence. Solace was found in the sale racks of Kohl’s. I still think of Jana every time I wear them. I am reminded that height is a good thing, to not be ashamed of it, and that being a tall woman does not imply an automatic rejection of a good leg-defining high heel. Did I mention that Jana was taller than me?

I realized last year that I’m not old. “Old” is an excuse to withhold yourself from life. Old is a relative term rather than an official marker. Something could be old after
3 days – i.e. the celery wilting in my fridge right now
3 months – baby pictures become outdated very quickly
5 years – but I don’t want to move everything to a new hard-drive
10 years, 50, 200, etc. You get the point.

Old is a self-inflicted wound and state of mind.

At the age of 50 when I can be an AARP member, 65 when I qualify for Social Security (assuming it’s still available…) or Lord willing 100, I will consent to being “elderly” or a “senior citizen,” but I hope to remember that I’m not old. I pray for God’s mercy as I navigate physical, emotional and mental changes in the years to come.

I also pray for Jana: Lord, have mercy.

For more of Jana’s story and continuing legacy, please visit:



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