It was a Saturday in the beginning of summer. One of those rare days in Massachusetts where the weather was perfect. Not too humid, not too hot. My sister’s boyfriend and I were planning on playing basketball. He was going to drive up from Connecticut in the early afternoon as he had done many times prior, play some basketball, then hang out for a bite to eat and head back home. He and I had become really close, a brotherly bond had not taken long to establish between the two of us. I was really looking forward to this Saturday as it had been a while since the last time he and I were able to play together and I missed the conversations we would have while shooting around. He was always such a kind and happy person; it was fun to be around him.
He called about an hour prior to the time we had scheduled to meet and said that he wasn’t feeling well and he didn’t think he could make it today but wanted to reschedule for next weekend. I, being obnoxious, trash talked him a little bit on how afraid he was to play me due to the beating I had given him the last time we played. We both had a good laugh over that but I could hear the strain in his voice. We spoke a few minutes longer and to end our conversation I told him that he needed to go see a doctor and that he needed to take care of himself. I didn’t want him doing the typical male pride thing and think that he could just wait it out. He agreed that he would go and said “I will be up to kick your ass next weekend, I promise.” He didn’t know that he wouldn’t be keeping his promise; he didn’t know that we would never play basketball together again, let alone see each other.
That night my phone rang it was my sister. She was, well, hysterical. After I had gotten off the phone with him he stayed around his house for a while then decided that he would drive himself to the emergency room. While at the emergency room in Hartford he complained of chest pains, they placed him on a stretcher wheeled him into a room and proceeded to wait, and wait. By the time that things got really serious it was too late, he had passed away from a heart attack at the age of 33. It was so quick, it was so unexpected that I had no idea how to react but to tell my sister I loved her and that I would be there for her tomorrow morning. Then I proceeded to get drunk, something to dull the shock, the pain, and the loss of what I was hoping would be the brother I had always wanted.
It was at this time my wife’s sister started dating again after a long relationship with my best friend. Her pick in men had always been rather suspect (outside of my friend) and upon hearing that he had been in rehab, in jail, had no drivers license, amongst other things, it definitely brought out a prejudgment that I am not proud of to this day. That and he wanted to play basketball with me. That was one of the first things he had told his new girlfriend when they spoke of me. I wasn’t ready, to play basketball with someone else (basketball has meant a great deal to me growing up, it was my escape and a sport that I could do alone as that is how I usually was), nor was I ready to let another “brother” into my life, especially one that I didn’t think would be around for too long.
It took me over a month to let this man even talk to me. When we did speak he was a close talker when he was drunk, a staunch republican (which I am not), he was religious (which I am not), BUT he was, in the beginning, not that bad. Okay so I could stand to be in the room with him. We hung out more and more over the next few months, we watched the Red Sox (he was a huge fan) win their first world series in 86 years together, we would have cook outs, he would play with my two young boys, he and I would sit outside smoking cigarettes and talk regularly, and most importantly I could see a love for my sister in law that I had not seen from past boyfriends (including my friend). It was this level of caring that I saw her really thrive in a way that I never thought she was capable of, I was in awe. He worked hard, no matter what he was doing he was passionate about it, he wanted to do the best he absolutely could at everything he tried to do. When I lost my job, he asked me to drive him around to some horseshoeing work he had around the area and he paid me, probably more than I needed to be, for the ride. He became my big brother, someone I looked up to more than anyone I had ever met.
It was one particular drive that really set in place the importance this man would have upon my life. You see growing up I always been told essentially what a piece of shit I was for being the typical teenager. I drank on occasion, I smoked pot regularly, I smoked cigarettes, but I was never reckless nor was I never unconcerned with my well being or those around me that I would hurt or put anyone in danger. Out of this came some of the most hurtful rumors about the type of person I was by people that shouldn’t be starting rumors about you. This led to a lot of shame about who I was when I was younger that was hard to get over. He knew this about me, he could see it. He had felt the same thing for years, which brought him to religion. We went out this afternoon, that he and her sister had stopped by unexpectedly to have a cook out with us, to go and get some meats and side dishes. He starts talking to me about his past, he tells me about the police chase through the woods and how so many times he should have been dead. He looks over at me and said, “If there is ever anything you want to ask about me or my past you can. I will answer any questions you have honestly.” He then proceeded to tell me how he wasn’t ashamed anymore of his past, he wasn’t afraid of anyone’s reactions to it. If it wasn’t for all of the past he had, he wouldn’t be at this point with her, with his life, and he wouldn’t be happier than he had ever been. I asked two questions of him after he allowed and he answered them with such thought and sincerity that when I started to tear up a bit while we drove he looked at me and said,
“Your past will never be worse than mine, what you have shared with me the things they say about you, it will never be like mine. You are what you are each day but each day going forward not backwards. Be who you are today let them stay in the past, it will only hurt them not you.”
We pulled over, shared a cigarette and spoke for a while longer before heading back and having a really nice time grilling some food and laughing. At the time he was engaged to my sister in law and they had a baby on the way. He exuded a passion for life that I had never been around, that I had never felt the pull of. He and I had shared up until that point many adventures that when spoken of with those that knew him they would be doubled over with laughter.
It was a heartbreaking night when they told us. He was out chopping wood to earn extra money for the birth of his first child. A tree caught him from behind and drove him into the pile of freshly cut wood, killing him instantly. A Fiancée, a soon to be father, a son, brother, and to me a mentor was just gone. No one got to say good-bye to him. No one got to tell him how much he had meant to them, how the words he said to them during that car ride changed their lives. No one got to say how deeply regretful they were that they never got to play basketball together or that he waited to long to let this man into their life and heart because of the pain over the loss of a brother figure just before they had met. No one got to say those things and I would have had them drive me down had he not said, “You are what you are each day but each day going forward not backwards.” He wouldn’t have wanted me to regret them but to just enjoy the time that we had together and remember them. I have a tattoo on my arm of a dragonfly for him. It is a symbol from the day he died; he knows what I am talking about.
It is because of him that I allow people in where previously there may have been a wall. I think back to the time it took for me to allow him into my life and into my heart and chose not to have that be a reality any longer. Without him I would not have my brother from another mother in Vermont, a life long friend with whom our friendship has only become stronger, a man who is so positive and encouraging that when we are not working out together every Saturday I still hear him say to me “come on bud, you got this” throughout my week, and without him I would not have allowed in a man who checks in with me regularly since she left and will invite me out for a beer every few weeks to laugh. It is without him that these people and I wouldn’t know each other, they might just have been another person in the crowd that I would pass with my head down. Now I may lose one of them, they may lose me, but that doesn’t change that they see me as who I am today……not who I was.
I write this today as I find that his father, who I became close to after his son’s passing, is losing his battle with ALS. I, after moving away, haven’t seen him in a while and I feel regret about that. Today though, I am who I am today and I will make the trip to see him.
Thank You Chip, you are forever with me.