One of my fondest memories of childhood was watching the stop-motion animated special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” every December. My mom would take my sister Meri and me to our friend Steven Votava’s house to celebrate Hanukkah. Once we lit the candles, we’d all gather around the television to watch “Rudolph” and “Frosty the Snowman.” I still remember waiting in anticipation for the CBS Special Presentation. It was a tradition we upheld as far back as I can remember.
I had known Steven since preschool. Looking back now, it seemed like my sister and I were always with him, riding big wheels, going to each other’s birthday parties, watching TV.
I can still remember his laugh. It was sort of a cackle — a series of cartoonish, hearty yucks. And I remember his dark, brown hair cut straight across the middle of his forehead. And I remember the way he used to move his jaw up and down, his mouth opening and closing as he cut paper with scissors.
I also remember the exact moment I learned he died. He had just gotten glasses and braces and I thought he was so grown up. I was in fourth grade. I was late to school, and had just come from the office to get my tardy slip. A mutual friend, Tammy, came running up to me, yelling at me, “Did you hear? Did you hear?” she said. “Steven’s dead.”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. Knowing I was late and afraid of getting into trouble, I opened the door to class, gave my teacher the tardy slip and sat down at my desk. I didn’t mention it for the rest of the day.
When I got home, my aunt, with whom my sister and I lived with at the time, sat us down at the kitchen table. I knew what was coming. But I remember hoping that it was all a dream and that maybe she might have another piece of news she was sharing, something other than what, deep down, I knew she was going to say. “Steven died last night,” she told us.
He was 10 years old.
Looking back on it now with kids of my own, I know it took much more strength than I could possibly muster for my aunt to be the bearer of such tragic news. At 10 years old, it was my first experience with death. But it was different from the death of a grandparent or the death of a pet — the kinds of deaths that 10-year-olds should have to deal with if they are forced to deal with such a subject. But the death of a best friend, a child, someone who was my equal — it was something so big, so incomprehensible, that I didn’t know how to process it at such a young age. I didn’t know how to make it real. And so, I bottled up my emotions, harboring a fear of abandonment I held onto for years. After going to therapy on and off over the years (there were other issues I went for, having to do with my very dysfunctional family, but that’s a whole other series of writings), I still have issues allowing myself to get too close to people at times.
Every December, I think about my best friend who died so young, more than 30 years ago.
I still talk to Steven’s mom and dad every now and then who still live in the same house. They eventually had another son, Alex, who is in his 20s now.
Last year, I paid them a visit and I brought my wife and my two boys. As we drove into the driveway, my memories of Steven came flooding back. I could see my sister and me riding our Big Wheels with him in the driveway, chasing each other around the yard.
As we walked in, Mrs. Votava greeted us and welcomed us in. And inside, it all looked just like I remembered; most everything looked exactly the same, with the exception of a few modern upgrades.
The only way I can describe being back in that house, now that I’m grown and with my own children, is surreal. Instead of thinking about Steven’s death from the perspective of being his friend, I thought about how I would handle losing one of my own children. How would my wife handle it? How would it affect our marriage? How would it affect our relationship with our surviving son?
Mr. Votava, who never talked a whole lot about the night Steven died, was sitting on the couch and greeted us with a warm but quiet welcome.
Mrs. Votava invited the kids to play with the few remaining toys they had in the house. I recognized some of them as Steven’s. It’s hard to describe the feeling I had when Noah and Emmett began playing with them — old “Star Wars” action figures, a few Hot Wheels cars, some Snoopy toys. It was a feeling of nostalgia and sadness and happiness all at once.
After we ate lunch, I asked Mrs. Votava about Steven. Over the years, I was afraid to ask her what it was like for the her the night he died. She replayed the scene for me. Even after living in Chattanooga, Tenn., for more than 40 years, she still had her thick Brooklyn accent.
It was a rainy Wednesday night. She was driving home on East Brainerd Road from an exercise class at the JCC. Steven was in the back seat. Their car skidded to the right and was broadsided on the passenger side. “I was completely oblivious from what was going on, because I must have blacked out for a couple of minutes,” Mrs. Votava told me while sitting at her kitchen table. “Next thing I knew, I was taken out of my car, walking around. At that point, the ambulance was already there. And I didn’t hear what they were saying. I was taken to the hospital and I was in the emergency room and the doctor came over with Rabbi Sherwin and that’s when they told me he was gone.”
Mrs. Votava told me that in the days and weeks, and even years after the accident, she was treated differently by a lot of people because they just didn’t know what to say to her. “It got to the point when I saw someone coming at me and I knew it was uncomfortable, I had to make the first effort and say, ‘It’s okay, I am not the Dresden doll.’ ”
I asked if I could go upstairs and see Steven’s old room. As I made my way up the stairs, I saw photos of Steven in the hallway just outside his room. It still looked the same as I remembered, the bed in the same place, the closet where we used to pull out his toys to play with.
As I made my way back downstairs, my kids were getting restless. It was time to go. But before we left, Mrs. Votava and I finished our conversation. I was amazed at how strong she’s been over the years. When I think about the possibility of losing my own children, I don’t know that I would have her kind of strength.
“I put one foot in front of the other and I just go on with my life,” she told me. “It’s been hell. I’m not going to tell you it’s been a picnic because it hasn’t. There are days that I don’t even think about it. But a smell, a sound, a visual, seeing some of his friends. But it doesn’t make me sad. It makes me happy.”
Now, the holidays are here again. And this year, I will introduce my two boys to “Rudolph.” But it won’t be quite the same. There will be no rotating, multicolored “special” coming toward us as the CBS logo flashes on the screen, indicating a special presentation, as we wait in anticipation for the cartoon classic to begin. CBS quit airing it sometime in the late 1980s. And now, “Rudolph” can be seen on YouTube anytime. But, just like when I was a kid, Noah and Emmett will begin forming their own memories of watching it. And someday, they’ll learn about the memories I have of watching it when I was their age with a boy named Steven.
Charles Moss is a writer and father based in Chattanooga, Tenn. You may connect with him on Twitter @chachimoss and Facebook. You may also read more of his work on his website. (A shorter version of this essay originally appeared on Nooga.com.)
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