I made it 38 years on this planet before I suffered my first true loss of a loved one. It was literally the first day of 2019 when I got the news that my beloved grandfather, Eugene, passed away. It wasn’t a surprise exactly — he was in his mid-80s and had a litany of health problems despite having a mind still sharp as a tack.
I didn’t make it back home to the funeral. Prices for flights were high to do a turn-around trip for something that he himself would’ve considered a waste of money. After all, I had just thankfully seen him over Christmas. I think we both knew that this visit could be the last because we took the time to take pictures of just the two of us and he gave me a big hug, we said we loved each other, and as far as I’m concerned, we had the last exchange of dialogue we’d have on this existential plane.
Grandpa: I hope I get to see you again.
Me: I’m counting on it.
Afterlife aside, I was wrong. But as far as final farewells go, I couldn’t have asked for much more. He was the archetype of a grandfather. Bald since I could remember. (He said he just had a “really wide part” in his hair.) Played Willie Nelson on his stereo when he had family over for the holidays, that he and my grandmother hosted for most of my childhood. He did that thing where he “stole” us grandkids’ noses with his thumb. He referred to his living-in-Michigan-his-whole-life meat-and-potatoes diet-influenced big gut as “relaxed muscle.” And somehow despite battling alcoholism and chain-smoking as a younger man and never watching what he ate nor doing any exercise outside of proudly maintaining his little yard, he lived well into his 80s and enjoyed a large family including several great-grandchildren. I’m sad that he’s gone and when I finally make it back to Michigan this summer in June, it’ll be the first time back since I last saw him in December 2019. It will be odd, but as far as these things go, I feel quite lucky to have had him as long as I did.
My brother lost three of his closest childhood friends before he was 22 years old. One died fighting in the Iraq War, the other two took their own lives after battling deep depression and addiction. He didn’t handle it well. I recognized the tragedy for what it was; these were kids that I grew up living next door to, played yard games with, were welcomed into the neighborhood when our family moved just before middle school. But it wasn’t the same experience as my brother endured.
Over the years, I found myself battling my own depression while drawn toward storytelling. Intense tales about loss and tragedy drew me in like moth to flame: films like “In The Bedroom” and “Manchester By The Sea”; stories by Andre Dubus and Raymond Chandler; heavy and dark music by haunted musicians. I hadn’t actually experienced those characters’ heartache of losing a child or the tormenting regret of ruining something great.
By all accounts, I’d lived a charmed life.
Looking back, maybe I was trying to immerse myself in those tales of woe to prepare myself for the inevitable shoe that would drop. After all, no one makes it through all of life without tragedy. It’s simply a matter of time.
And then all those near-misses — a close friend miraculously surviving a near-fatal heart condition; my mother miraculously recovering from a rare and usually fatal abdominal condition; my 91-year-old grandmother’s dementia evening out to a point where she’ll likely not remember me immediately when I see her next but otherwise is in remarkably healthy condition.
A new thought began to creep into my mind. Perhaps the tragedy will not be one that I experience, but one that others experience due to my own untimely passing. After all, someone has to draw the short straw, and while I had spent my life worrying about how devastated I would be should one of my closest people suffer a tragic fate, I began to consider that I’m rolling those same dice as everyone else. Intellectually I knew that odds don’t quite work that way but it added a new wrinkle: I began worrying about causing people pain via my own untimely demise. This is what happens to someone with general anxiety disorder and a strong sense of existential dread.
It turns out, I was wrong.
Shortly after my grandfather passed away, the unthinkable happened. A global pandemic that we now have been living with for nearly a year and a half swept the globe and upended our lives in then-unimaginable ways.
It’s impossible to convey what that feeling was like but since we all experienced it, I won’t even try, other to say that fear gripped me in ways I’d never thought possible. Fear of the air. Fear of getting groceries. Fear of leaving the apartment. Fear of getting sick. But mostly, fear of getting others sick. And ultimately, fear of my loved ones getting sick and dying.
It turns out that it didn’t take long for that fear to be realized.
The Sunday before the lockdown hit New York, my friend, Eric, died at the age of 37. It wasn’t COVID related — he had been battling a relapse of cancer and taken a startlingly quick turn for the worse on a Friday and didn’t make it through the weekend. He was a wonderful soul, someone who I had the pleasure of knowing through one of my best friends, Matt, when I moved to New York back in 2015. He sang karaoke (and could actually sing), played trivia, had a curmudgeon streak that was so endearing (“Whole Foods? More like Whole Paycheck.”), and was incredibly handsome and kind. He had gone through remission a couple years prior, fell in love and got married to a wonderful gal, moved to Seattle to have new adventures after living in NY his whole life.
And then it was all taken away.
I was sad over his much-too-soon departure from this world. But I know that Matt was hurting more. They were much closer than I was with Eric. He and his wife visited Eric and his wife multiple times over the years after they moved away. Eric and his wife even surprised Matt and his wife on their honeymoon in Hawaii, despite being in between chemo treatments. My heart ached for Matt’s loss of his good friend so tragically young.
Yet something I didn’t expect was the way that Eric’s friends and family extended their community to all those whose lives were touched in one way or another by Eric. Seeing Matt, considering himself a relatively later-in-life friend addition, brought into the inner circle as they Zoomed and planned memorials (for far-off dates that have as yet come to pass due to quarantines and lockdowns and the overall state of the world) and held each other up through it all made me grateful that there are people like that in the world. That there are souls who pull the best and diverse communities into their orbit — and that even when that person is no longer with us, their gravity, an unseen but palpable force of nature, still exists.
What I didn’t know then was that I’d experience that directly only a few months later.
Jake Parker was, to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, a human prototype never intended for mass production. A singular entity unlike any other I’ve encountered. He was fearlessly himself yet had moments of being crippled with anxiety and doubt. He was so effortlessly hip yet devoid of pretension. Probably because he never took himself too seriously, even when he was giving himself a “self high-five” after one of his trademark throw-his-head-back guffaws. I’ve never met anyone else who made himself laugh so much. Of course, everyone laughed their hardest when they were around him, too. He was tall, handsome, thoughtful, and straight-up ridiculous. His humor could best be described as maturely juvenile. Or maybe it was adolescently mature? He found the biggest laughs in the most mundane places (he and I had a running list of names, real and made-up, that we would just annunciate aloud over and over, laughing harder each time). He was the life of the party wherever he went not because he tried to be — simply he being his silly, genuine self made everyone want to be around him. That he considered me a close friend felt almost like I had to be an imposter. And yet, he and I connected on a level that I’ve only had with a couple other people in my life. People who draw out this pure-joy side of myself that sometimes I didn’t even know was there; who make you feel special simply because they’ve chosen you to be in their life in some capacity at all. Being around Jake felt like being in some sort of translucent time machine, where the surroundings didn’t change at all, only our energies reversed back to those days of being teenagers with your best friends and having no clue about the weight the world had in store for us.
It was a Sunday in early November 2020 and I missed a phone call. I almost always miss phone calls because I’m an anxious person. It was from Kat, Jake’s wife. I didn’t think anything of it because the three of us talked all the time and I figured they wanted to share something silly and I was in the middle of a movie so I would call them back.
Then the text came in immediately after. Jake was in the hospital undergoing emergency brain surgery. I called her back and the rest of what followed is difficult to remember in a linear fashion. None of it made sense. We had just been texting the night — mere hours — before. He had seemed fine. But he woke up with an extreme headache, one that led him to the ER, where the unimaginable ended up occurring shortly thereafter. Within a matter of hours, one of my best friends was gone, no warning, no signs, no reason to suspect or anticipate his departure.
2020 was supposed to be his year. He was getting married. Kat and Jake had asked me to be their wedding officiant. They’d adopted a dog. Every time we talked he tried to coax me to move back to LA so we could be neighbors. While I wasn’t able to fly out to officiate, I’m so grateful that they were able to still tie the knot together in Santa Barbara. They FaceTimed me from the restaurant immediately after it was official. He was so happy.
Less than two months later, undiagnosed acute-onset leukemia caused bleeding on his brain from which he didn’t recover. He had just turned 40. And not unlike Eric’s group of friends, Jake’s group of close friends — of course, he had so many — embraced us all, those who had known him since childhood, those like myself who became close to Jake after college (fun fact, we never lived in the same city somehow despite forging such a strong bond), to those who Jake had recently gotten closer to through work and mutual friends after he and Kat moved from Chicago to LA. I’ve had moments of feeling like I almost don’t deserve to feel as deeply sad as I do given how many others had decades more of him to miss. But time is a funny thing. Much like memory isn’t linear nor does it add up evenly, so are the emotional bonds we create with one another, and thus the grief we experience when those people leave us. And to be part of a group of people for whom duration of friendship simply doesn’t factor into the equation warms my heart. Not that I should’ve expected anything else from those that Jake kept closest to his heart.
I’ve grown quite a lot these last 18 months. Living through the American epicenter of a deadly pandemic had something to do with that. So did losing one of my best friends unexpectedly. Not being able to hug or see my family or most of my friends since 2019 while going through one of the hardest years of my life has been torturous. As my place in the world continues to open up to some sort of alternate timeline “normal”, I’ve begun to make plans again. In just over two weeks, I’m flying home to finally see my family. And in July, I’ll be back in Los Angeles for a wedding. Not the wedding I was expecting to fly back for last year. And no longer will I be staying on Jake’s couch whenever I visit. And no longer will he be part of any of my plans again. It gives me a melancholy ache that this venture out of the pandemic means I don’t have the luxury of time feeling on pause any longer. While I do want to get back to living a life close to what I had prior to 2020, the “now” simply is so much different to fully return to before. It’s all different from here on out.
Especially without my own personal human time machine by the name of Jake Parker.
Tragedy does not discriminate nor is it a finite resource. So, be kind to yourself. Treasure those close to you. Let go of that which no longer serves you. And deeply enjoy the best times as much as you can to your fullest extent, for they are fleeting and precious and singular.