A Brief Epitaph For A Friend

A friend of mine passed away this weekend.  He was young, smart, accomplished, and a genuinely good person.  I will miss him, as I have missed all those who have gone before him.  I feel selfish writing this, but he always told me how much he enjoyed my writing, so it feels like a fitting tribute.  I have been out of practice with longform writing, but I will do my best to string together a few words for someone who I will miss dearly.

Death is a part of life  We are all born, and we all die, it is what we do in the middle that makes the difference.  Some of us leave behind towering monuments, or massive changes to the world, but a vast majority change the worlds of people in our immediate circle.  In my opinion it is the magnitude of the small impacts that truly define who we are.  World leaders can fall, celebrities can overdose, business titans can die, and while we may feel sympathy we don’t hurt as much as having a loved one pass away.  When someone dies before their time it feels like an even more significant tragedy, especially when that person is so full of promise.

I hate the idea of death inflation.  When an acquaintance dies he becomes your friend, when your friend dies he becomes your best friend, when someone who you used to know well dies he becomes like a brother to you.  I will strive to be realistic.  He was a friend of mine.  We were never in school at the same time, we didn’t hang out often, I didn’t share many hardships with him or call him up when I was facing despair.  But we texted occasionally, happy birthdays and look forward to seeing you soons.  We tracked each other’s lives through Facebook and stole off when we were in a group to have deep conversations about philosophy and life.  He was hands down one of the smartest people that I knew, and had that wonderful weirdness that the brilliant often have.  He was a delightful person.

Years ago I set a goal to run a 5k and one of my friends was going to run it with me but had to back out.  I put up a post and within seconds he responded.  Even though he was an accomplished runner he wanted to join me on a measly 5k at my turtle’s pace.  We didn’t really know each other at the time, I knew him as an awkward gangly kid who always stood on the outside of every group.  He came to Vermont the night before and we spend several hours just talking and telling stories.  I found that he was incredibly smart, well spoken, and wise well beyond his years.  It was a really fun time, and I am glad that I got the chance to share it with him.  As I started doing comedy he followed along religiously, always asking for new jokes and giving encouragement.  He made me feel like I was doing something special, and that I was making a difference.

This Saturday a large group of us got together.  Young, old, from all different backgrounds, from across the country, people who have no right being friends, but who are bound together by the fact that when we were 18 or 19 we all decided to join the same fraternity.  We rented a bar and got drunk together.  We sang songs and told stories and ate chicken wings.  It was a good time.

As I was walking through the crowd one of the guys who I have known for almost a decade grabbed my arm and said “I love what you put on facebook” and I said thanks, because it is something that I get often and kind of makes me feel uncomfortable.  He would not let me brush it off, he grabbed both my arms and looked me in the eyes and told me that one day when he was thinking about committing suicide one of my posts made him reconsider.  It shook me.  I have been friends with this guy for years, and the thought that one of the inconsequential things that I posted out of boredom kept him alive was powerful.  We looked at each other with tears in our eyes and hugged.  He was not the person who died.

Later that night the reality and the alcohol hit me.  I sat on the front steps of my college and thought deeply.  I confronted my own feelings of insignificance and accepted that I made a huge difference in the life of someone who I care about.  And true to form I put it out on Facebook.  Little did I know that as I was smugly basking in my own relevance someone else who I cared about was leaving this life.

Ever since I found out about the loss on Sunday morning I have been beating myself up.  I should know better, I should have done something, I should have asked why he wasn’t there with all of us.  But in reality there is nothing that I could have done.  I spend a lot of time thinking about death, rationalizing, reading philosophy, trying to understand what it means or if it means nothing at all.  I have spent months carrying around a coin emblazoned with Memento Mori to remember that death will happen and to make the best out of life without getting too big headed.  But when death hits my circle I fly off the handle just like everyone else.

But now I promise to do better.  I promise to make the best of the time that I have and to help others to make the best of their lives.  I hope to make a difference so that others don’t have to feel the way I feel now.  I used to think that death was easy, a way out, but after burying too many of my friends I know that it is the worst option not only for myself but for everyone around me.  Now that I have another grave to stand by I can’t bear the thought of making others feel that way.  So even though he is gone, I will do my best to live up to his expectations and to make a difference.  In the meantime all I have are happy memories to look back on.

I can’t remember where we were, but I know we were dressed up and in good spirits, it was probably a wedding.  I saw a group of the younger guys and headed over to say my hellos.  There were the normal hugs and back pats, exchanges of pleasantries and good natured ribbing.  He was standing on the edge of the group, as was his way, and when he made his way to me I pretended that I didn’t know him.  I pulled the old “I think I remember you but what is your name again” joke and he fell for it hook line and sinker.  There was terror in his eyes, like me not remembering him was the worst thing in the world, but he reacted by earnestly trying to introduce himself to me again.  I must have tipped my hand in some way and he realized that I was pulling his chain and a great big smile spread across his face as he came in to give me a big hug with all his might.

He should have known better than to fall for it, I could never forget him.

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