My earliest memory of my father's best friend Chris isn't specific enough to piece together, probably because I knew him my entire life. I'm sure he was loudly saying something tasteless as hell, though. When he died after complications from a stroke earlier today, all I could think about was what sort of utterly inappropriate comment he'd have made about his own death.
In more ways than I'm comfortable admitting, Chris and I were similar—we both loved getting a rise out of people, we both had tempers, and we both inspired very strong reactions in others, in one direction or another. The fact that he and I fell out over the past few years thanks largely to those shared traits is its own special breed of irony, and a testament to the bizarre age in which we live, a rift brought on by Facebook essentially erasing a lifetime.
The fault was mine. Surprisingly, Chris hadn't been angry with anything I'd said, but the reverse. I sat on my stubborn pride about it for the rest of his life. The bizarre thing about Chris (and the quality we absolutely do not share) was that no matter what he said, in person you couldn't help but like the guy. He could make a joke like the time at a movie he saw someone wearing a Virgin Airlines hat and said, loudly enough that the guy must've been able to hear, "that's truth in advertising, right there" and you'd wince, but you somehow never really got angry at him if he was standing right in front of you. His odd charisma let him get away with things that were occasionally baffling in retrospect.
When the decision was made to take Chris off life support, they called my father and said they'd wait until he got there. Somehow the signals got crossed and they took him off early, though my father had immediately left for the hospital. Chris survived off of life support until five minutes after my father arrived, as if he was waiting for him. Afterwards, Dad called it "one final fuck you to the doctors." No one ever said Chris wasn't stubborn as hell.
The last time I saw Chris was, ironically enough, at the funeral of my father's father, a quiet man who spent his entire life refusing to back down from injustice while almost never raising his voice. It was also the first time most of my family had met my then-girlfriend, the woman to whom I'm now engaged. This is a relevant detail, as her presence was the cause of the last words I can actually remember hearing Chris say out loud: "hey, nice place to take a date."
While I can't think of a more fitting epitaph for one of the most tasteless, exasperation-inducing, funniest, and complicated human beings I've ever known, I wish it didn't have to be.
I can vividly remember the first time I met Stone Weeks. It was the first day before 6th grade, the first day at my new school. He was in the library, laughing at something on a computer with someone else I hadn't met yet. I remember seeing him and thinking "I know he's not going to talk to me, but I just hope he doesn't beat me up." Knowing what I know about him now, the fact that I ever even thought that seems so laughably absurd.
He seemed like the cool kid in class, which he turned out to be, and which made it all the more baffling that he had time for someone like me. I was exactly the kid you'd probably imagine; loud, abrasive, irritating, and tragically convinced I knew better. I'd say I've changed, and maybe to an extent that's true, but it's a difference of degree, not kind. I'll be fighting those demons until the day I die. The fact that Stone put up with them was more than I had any right to ask, and it's something for which I know I'll never have an explanation. It wasn't pity—I know what that looks like, and with Stone it was something more genuine.
The last conversation I had with him was online. I, self-absorbed idiot that I was, hadn't really kept up with anyone from high school save one person, so Stone sought me out. I don't remember at what point of my life it was; the years between 19 and 25 were a bad dream I'm still trying to forget, and differentiating between various iterations of the miserable moron I was becomes more difficult the farther from it I age. I was convinced I knew everything when I knew absolutely jack-all, and I couldn't figure out until years later that the reason I'd been so unhappy was because of how much I had hated myself as a person.
It must've been around or just after I graduated, though, because I remember him talking animatedly about his work with historian Douglas Brinkley, born not from any desire to brag but of a genuine want to share it with me. I know he asked me what I was doing, sure that it was something important, something of which I could and should be proud. I didn't have the heart to tell him what a failure I was, my history degree laughing at me under my mountain of soon-to-be defaulted student debt and my lackluster ability even to wait tables. I spent years avoiding most of my family for that reason, to the point where it's still hard to go back. Letting Stone down was somehow harder. I think I dodged the question as best I could. He was tactful enough not to press the point.
Though I can't remember specifically when the conversation took place, it couldn't have been long after that a tractor-trailer hit the car Stone and his brother Holt were driving as they waited in a traffic jam on their way back to suburban DC from Rice University. Neither survived.
His mother asked me, three years ago, why I'd never come to talk to her about it. Incomparably sweet woman that she was and is, she wasn't accusatory, though God knows she had every right to be. I told her a partial truth: I couldn't even begin to fathom her pain and didn't know how to speak to her about it without feeling like a presumptuous intruder—how the hell could I or anyone else comprehend what she and her husband been through? How could we even start to try? She thanked me for my honesty and was more understanding than I had a right to hope for. What I left unsaid, though, was something for which I'm only now beginning to find the words.
For me, at least, there was something profoundly different about seeing a friend die, even one with whom you haven't kept close touch. Maybe it's different for other people, but the death of a contemporary (especially an inarguably good human being), while no more or less sad than anyone else, brought to me it's own special breed of terror. Stone's death scared the hell out of me. It still does. Every year, we drive to my fiancee's family's place in rural Virginia, driving the same road where Stone and his brother died. Every year, I try to keep my heart from racing the entire trip. That road is haunted by more than just memories, and there are no guarantees tomorrow will happen.
In the end, though, what I remember about Stone isn't how he died or what was left undone. What I remember is one summer afternoon in 9th grade. Stone had invited me to come over on a weekend and hang out with him and some of the other popular kids at someone's house—I couldn't begin to remember whose, though I do remember being mildly baffled at the invite. Unsurprisingly, I didn't fit in. Though no one said anything cruel, I eventually found myself quietly waiting outside to get picked up by someone, anyone who could rescue me from this nightmare of a functioning social life. Stone left everyone else to come out and wait with me, talking quietly and calmly and easing the bitter, self-hating awkwardness that was all I could see inside my own head.
I didn't deserve his kindness. I may never deserve it. But the fact that he did it shows that he left the world a less miserable place than it was before he arrived, and that's something to which we should all aspire.
My earliest memory of my grandfather is probably the earliest memory I have: running down the front hallway and leaping into his arms, his laughter as he kissed me hello. I can't have been older than three at the time. Not that the specific time frame matters much in the recollection; that isn't a memory of a single day, but of a lifetime. It was such an integral part of my days as a child that when I close my eyes, I can still feel his bristly mustache as he kissed me hello.
I am a deeply-flawed human being in more ways than I am often able to count—a sentiment many will readily and unsurprisingly echo. But any good I might have in me was gleaned from my grandfather's example, and for any ill, he is blameless. It is without hyperbole that I say he was the very best of what humanity has to offer, an unfailingly good and kind man who didn't deserve the obnoxious little shit of an eldest grandson he somehow bore with a smile. His time was never his own; as far as he was concerned, it and everything he was belonged to my brother and I. Zach, at least, earned that a thousand times over. I'd say the same about myself, but I think at this point we're past lies.
It wasn't a sudden illness that took my mother's father; his lifetime undefeated 2-0 record against cancer attested to the fact that while illness could stagger him, it could never knock him down. No, what robbed him of his mobility, then his self, then finally his life was time, the same grim bastard that will some day take us all. Living to 92 in my family is akin to 114 for anyone else; the fact that he was able to spit in the eye of the reaper for so long is a testament both to the care he took of himself and the quiet will with which he lived. Until he went into the hospital six months before he died, he still worked out three times a week, and showed an attention to his diet that was unbelievable at the time and becomes more baffling the further away from it I get.
With him, I was comparatively lucky beyond measure—I got to see him the night before he died. For one night, and more than he had been in months, he was himself again, laughing and joking as if the world would never be able to lay a glove on him. In that moment, I remember thinking he was still invincible. For one night, it was nice to believe it was true.
It couldn't have lasted. My mother called me tearfully the next evening, telling me he'd taken a turn for the worse and did I want to come back to the hospital? I can't remember what I told her, but the truth is I knew what I'd see if I went. I didn't want to remember him when his sense of self had vanished—I wanted the night before to be the indelible memory. Unlike I would with Stone and Chris, I got the chance to say the goodbye I wanted. I don't think I'll ever know if it was the right decision, but it's the one I have to live with.
I have no answers for what to do when we face losses like these. I'm not sure anyone does. The closest we can come is to know that every day boils down to a struggle to earn the regard of those no longer with us. I wish I could say I was succeeding.