CHICAGO — We came together in a snowstorm for a good cry, or several.
“This sucks. This sucks so much.”
Our friend Chris died. At age 25. Of a lung infection. After a long battle with leukemia.
We had thought he was OK, or at least, assumed that he was fine after he made it past a few milestones earlier this year. I assumed he was fine, assumed he was thriving each time he liked an old Facebook photo I’d added from our senior year fraternity formal. (Throughout his battles, Chris was scouring Facebook for great, old photos.) I assumed we’d talk again, assumed we’d even hang out sometime. I’d make time at some point, when he was fine.
I was wrong.
He was not one of my best friends, and I was not one of his. We were fraternity brothers who liked each other and respected each other, at least as far as I knew. I didn’t get a call from his inner circle when he passed away; I found out via our chapter’s Facebook group. And from that moment on, the weird memories rolled into my mind.
It’s felt like I only remember the insignificant, stupid stuff. I remember that, as fraternity president, I initiated Chris in the wrong order. “Alonzi” is alphabetically before “Archer,” but I remember reading “AVERY MICHAEL ARCHER” before “CHRISTOPHER PATRICK ALONZI” during the initiation ceremony. Stupid. Self-centered. But for some reason a memory about him that sticks.
I remember him joking around, smiling, being perpetually light and positive as he bounced from room to room in the fraternity house. Imperfect, of course, but never too angry or frustrated.
I remember him on his “Bid Night.” He hadn’t accepted a bid to the fraternity yet, but he was there when we gathered in the basement to sing our chapter’s version of “American Pie” by Don McLean. As is tradition, we link arms and make a circle of brothers, celebrating being together and the power of our brotherhood and friendship. I distinctly remember the look on his face when an older guy grabbed him and welcomed him into the circle. He was surprised, happy, felt welcomed. He had found another place to call home.
I remember the one time we Skyped, in the spring of this year. I’d promised to Skype, but my old laptop wasn’t cooperating, so when I finished a Skype for work and saw Chris was online, I clicked to call him. He was stuck alone, with a limited menu of available food, until his immune system got better, but he wasn’t unhappy or down in any way. He was happy to see me, happy to talk about what he was working on. Happy. Smiling. Positive. Laughing. Upbeat.
When we gathered on that Friday in mid-December, we all felt shell-shocked. I didn’t know how to answer when someone asked “how are you” in the general course of a conversation. Of course I was bad. Of course this sucks. It’s great to see you, but god, why like this?
I couldn’t stop saying that “this sucks.” It was the most simplistic, visceral way I had to express how I felt: it burns and chafes and smacks and rips and aches and destroys everything else with its pain and suffering and loss.
The wake felt tough, with an open casket. Is that him? Does it look like him? Oh no. No. In that crowded room, my eyes filled with water for the third time after I heard. This sucks. Why?
The next morning, the funeral was the same. I had processed sadness. Yes, this was sad. But I finally started to process loss. His life was over and he was gone forever. His father, composed and funny the night before, cried as the coffin made its way down the aisle of the church. I used the next hour to process, think, try to make some peace.
The priest spoke of a “promise fulfilled,” referring to the promise of heaven for Chris, a faithful and passionate Catholic. But it sounded so off when it hit my ears, because he sounded so casual talking about death and because we’re talking about someone who just turned 25. Death doesn’t ever feel like a fulfillment of a promise, or the plausible next step, when he was 25.
It’s not really the priest’s fault. He’s probably done 50 funerals this year. And nothing sounds right when a 25-year-old dies.
A group of about six of us recruited other fraternity brothers to an impromptu dinner at a restaurant in Evanston. Our crowd ended up being more than 30 people — 5 women and many guys. The oldest of us, Phil, who we all knew as the most involved graduate of our chapter, bought the shots of Maker’s Mark in the photo above. We each got one and took it, for Chris. Maker’s Mark was always his favorite.
We caught up with each other, 30 old friends learning about each other anew. We had those epiphanies — I can’t believe Ian is about to graduate med school; oh yeah, I forgot Zach and Meg lived in Bloomington; Camron’s still loving Rhode Island; Adam stayed in St. Louis, and he has a girlfriend; Nick finally got his degree! — that happen when old friends gather. It felt happy for moments as we traversed the tables and checked with each other, a welcome respite from the weekend from hell, the weekend that sucked. We were taking advantage of the reunion we never wanted. We were all together, so we had to do something.
We took a photo, which felt wrong but at the same time normal. I mean, we’d gathered at formal dances and parties and weddings for years and taken “FIJI pictures” each time; why was this different?
But the photo still hurts to look at. Chris isn’t there.
As we waded through our feelings, my friend Porter’s apartment in Lakeview became the headquarters for our crew. We loved Chris; we missed Chris; we wished to be snapped out of this suffering. Most of his best friends were across town holding what they called their Irish Wake for Chris, but we were here, together. Trying.
Both nights looked a little like this. A beer, normal conversation, another beer, jokes and laughter, another beer, a mention of Chris. Silence. Then another beer. Eventually, champagne. A toast of memories, that I kicked off.
“This sucks. This sucks so much. This sucks,” I said, again using that awful phrase to express all manner of pain and loss. “Chris was the best of us, so happy and so positive. Goofy but serious about what he cared about. …”
It went on. We toasted, and we cried, and we heard the memories I forgot. Hilarious emails he sent. Fun times when he played for the crowd. How he always seemed to be wearing his outfits from Tae Kwon Do, no matter the time or day. His goofy demeanor, his slight, ever-present Chicago accent, his love for the Cubs and the Blackhawks. His pride in where he came from, his passion for the Boy Scouts, his heart.
And then someone suggested we turn on the Disney songs. Those songs provided the theme song to the room Chris shared with two other guys for a couple of years, so if you wanted to escape KE$HA, Bruno Mars and Rihanna, you found their room.
I sang loudly, did a duet with my friend’s fiance, and danced in a way I usually reserve for when I’m just with the dog. It was heartbreaking and comforting, a place we created years ago and that we can live in anytime when we gather together.
It was so imperfect, too. Christine, my wife, had to stay in the suburbs with her family and our dog. She knew Chris, too, and she loved this group of people, too, and she wasn’t there. Seemingly in her place were others, the random folks at the periphery: my friend Maggie’s brother and his girlfriend (who were treated to an emotional toast to Chris); the brother’s ex-girlfriend who knew Chris for years; the roommates. They joined in our moment.
It was good to be together, but it was painful, too. How do you move on from the death of someone who is in all your memories, all your photos, all your visions from key moments in your past.
The weekend ended as abruptly as it started. Flights left, cars drove away, connections were shattered once again. And Chris is gone forever.
I cannot know what “he would have wanted” — as so many people profess to do after their friends and family members die. I cannot know even what he fully thought, all that he believed about the world. I can only know what I saw in him.
The pain won’t dissipate easily, or quickly, or without more pain.
We came together in a snowstorm for a good cry, or several. We all had our moments of sadness, loss, pain. We did it together, relying on each other, finding the light moments in our difficulties. We remembered a man who made an impact, who lives on in our memories and, we can hope, our actions. We leaned on each other in this, the most painful of times. Together, we move forward.
But no matter what, it sucks. It sucks so much.