Before and After

If you asked me to name the best friend I ever had, I’d have to say it was Chris. We caused chaos during high school and clicked from the start. I could always rely on him to leave his front door open for me on days when I had nowhere else to go or to hang out until the early morning talking about all the future had in store. To this day, he’s one of the only people who really knew me during my younger years and one of the only people who ever called me “Jim”.

Today would have been his 41st birthday.

Chris’s death devastated me. Even now as I write this 13 years later, I have a hard time expressing my feelings about it. It didn’t seem real then and it still doesn’t seem real now, but it is. The timeline of my life took a drastic turn on the day he died.

562904_10151420673900643_57227621_nWe had big plans that were left undone. Standing at 6’6 and weighing over 400 pounds, Chris had been bouncing at bars across Long Island since he was legally allowed. The plan, though, was for him to become a pro wrestler one day with me as his arrogant manager. We talked about it a lot and, if you knew us then, it seemed like the most natural course of events. Of course, fate rarely follows the plan you expect it to.

Life is divided into before and after moments. I’ve had many. Whether it’s a near death experience, the birth of your children, or the loss of a loved one, you can’t help but feel that the path you’ve been on has taken a drastic turn. The more sudden the moment, the more jarring the change.

His passing was one of those moments for me. It left me shattered and confused. I had dealt with death many times in my life by then, but none had compared to this. The loss of family members, friends, or acquaintances through the years had all been sad, but this was different. It left a deep scar that, if I’m being honest, I’ve never fully recovered from.

When my father-in-law passed away last year, I was the one who told my daughter. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. Olivia bounced back as seven year olds do, but her initial reaction was some pretty raw sadness. In that moment, my heart broke in half. What made things worse was that I couldn’t help but think of all the death that she would be dealing with in her lifetime. It was such a sad moment that I, as her father, wanted to save her from. Not only couldn’t I save her then, but I knew I couldn’t save her from all that will surely follow.

As a parent, you want to protect your children from every negative thing in the world. However, you are also painfully aware that to do so would go against the very nature of life itself. I know that there’s nothing I can do to shield my kids from the pain of loss. That pain is an integral part of our story. It comes with being a person.

To keep them from experiencing the sting of death would mean that I would have to keep them from experiencing the joy of life. The only way to avoid the sadness that comes with losing someone truly special is to never have someone truly special at all. That’s not a trade-off worth making and, when you think about it like that, I wouldn’t want my children to live a life free of tears from loss. That would mean that they lived a life of loneliness or worse.

I still have a relationship with Chris to this day. Of course there’s the whimsical cliché about hoping he’s looking down at me and smiling. That’s nice and all, but not exactly what I mean. I don’t know if he’s looking down or not. That’s a bigger question for a different day.

Instead, I’ve taken all we’ve talked about and made it my own. During hard times, I can imagine his voice telling me to work harder or stay strong. I can picture his laugh when I screw something up or, as happened once during a heated email conversation I had a few years back, hear him exclaim, “Yo! Screw this guy!” It brings me comfort, makes me smile, and allows him to live on beside me even if he hasn’t.

I hope one day Olivia can say she had someone like Chris in her life. It would mean she experienced a friendship that many hope for. Even if it ends abruptly like mine did, it would still be worth it. For all the heartache and pain that came with Chris’s death, I still wouldn’t trade the time I spent with him during his life for anything.