In elementary school my friend and I snuck into the neighbor's yard to jump on their trampoline. We thought we were in the clear and that nobody saw until a chubby red-headed boy came walking towards us. Out of pure fear of being tattled on, we invited the boy to join us in our trampoline adventure. Eventually the fun got a little out of hand and I accidentally double-jumped the boy, causing him to break out into tears. This was clearly my fault, for I was the one who not only was trespassing but who also was terrorizing strangers. Whatever the case may have been, the boy frantically apologized to me and begged me not to tell his mother what happened. We all vowed to sweep it under the rug and call it a night, and that is the story of how I met Ryan Conley.
Ryan and I never became best friends or fell in love – that's not how this story ends. However, I silently maintained mad respect for the boy who trespassed with me at only nine years old. We shared small interactions after, like sitting next to each other on bus rides to school and silly conversations in history class — but nothing topped the day that we shared the trampoline adventure. He and I shared a secret that no one else knew about, and even I started to forget about until junior year.
Junior year is significant in this story because that is when we found out that Ryan Conley had leukemia. The community stood in shock for only a second before fundraisers began and outpourings of kindness flowed into the Conley's lives. Not only were students visiting Ryan on a regular basis, but so were teachers and even the Pittsburgh Penguins stopped by to hang out with him. I personally bought bracelets and helped with bake sales, but I never made myself present during Ryan's fight. It was a magical time where everyone put differences aside to visit and support Ryan and his family — until it wasn't magical anymore. We lost Ryan Conley on October 8th, 2015, exactly one day before his graduation party.
When Ryan's funeral came, there was no end to the procession of cars that paraded into the church parking lot. The entire community attended to say their final goodbyes to the sweet boy we had all grown to love. When time came for people to speak on behalf of Ryan, his cousins, lifelong friends and teachers spoke beautifully of him. At the end of the service when the pastor asked if anyone had any final words, I felt my feet move me to the front of the church. I didn't know how or why I ended up in front of these hundreds of people, but there I was, talking about the time that Ryan Conley apologized to me for convincing him to break and enter into our neighbor's backyard. This is something that I will never forget doing in my entire life. In a time of sadness, I managed to create a roomful of chuckles. I even earned some smiles from Ryan's family members, and it made me feel like I had done some good sharing a memory with them that was completely new.
Since Ryan's passing I have become close with the Conley family. Losing Ryan was difficult for everyone, but no one more than his parents and brother. Knowing that the holidays would be hard, last Christmas a few members of the class of 2016 and myself went to the Conley's to visit. In doing so we discovered that this is a family that would need support every step of the way, and we were willing to oblige. Since then, we continue to visit when we're home from school and around the holidays. I consider the Conley's to be a part of my family now. Every conversation with them is a new story and a new lesson about life.
It has been a little over a year since we lost Ryan Conley and in that time I have struggled a lot with regret. Anytime I had the opportunity to visit Ryan and his family, I made an excuse and avoided the situation. I told myself that he would get better or that he didn't want visitors. For a long time, I let this eat me up. During this extremely challenging period of time I have learned a lot of things, but most of all I learned that maybe it was not my place to have reintroduced myself into Ryan's life while he was sick. I kicked myself a lot after he passed, cursing myself for never visiting. While we were kind to each other and we shared one rebellious moment in our childhood, I know that I was not one of the people Ryan was concerned about before he left us. If I belong anywhere now, it is in the after part of Ryan's life; I am here for his family.
Losing Ryan was hard, but without ever knowing it he taught me to appreciate what I have, to care for others in times of weakness, and to never take a moment for granted. Thank you Ryan.
Lead Image Credit: Lori Conley