Wednesday, April 28, 2010
A little over a week ago I lost a dear friend and his death, in many ways, has shaken me to my core. Alex's death was tragedy, at only 37 years old he was killed when his car ran off the road and hit a tree. He left behind a loving wife and four small children. In the deluge of emotion that I, and all those blessed enough to have known him, have experienced in this past week, I found faith in knowing that no one who ever met Alex could have left the experience unchanged.
I learned some of the most important lessons of my from him. Alex was the kind of man who was always smiling, even though tragic things had happened in his life,he always found joy. Alex came into my life when I was in my early twenties, he was a friend of my sister's boyfriend. His relation to me was at best peripheral, or would have been had he been anyone other than who he was. I was, like most older siblings, no great fan of hanging out with my kid sister or her friends but Alex was a guy who didn't seem to understand boundaries. He saw no natural obstruction between an two people, not age, not clique, not gender or race, he just loved everyone. Such a creature seemed absurd to a sometime-cynic like me. He always seemed to be there, making us laugh, telling us side-splitting stories, over the years he became a part of our family. Whatever lines had seemed to exist when he first walked through the door were long since gone by the time he died. He didn't see divisions, he created connections.
Over the last week as I've wrestled with the whys and what ifs that inevitably follow such a tragic loss, I've come to understand that some people burn so brightly with a love for life, with a simple joy, that we cannot help but be changed by having known them.
I hadn't planned on being moved by sister's crazy new friend. He was loud and hyper, he said and did outrageous things. When Alex entered my life I was in a very dark time, I had been suffering with an eating disorder for nearly ten years and the toll of all my self abuse was beginning to make itself known. I had been in and out of treatment for several years, had had to abandon college and was dealing with the heavy physical and emotional toll of my disorder. I had slipped into what I can only refer to as a deadly darkness and in walks a man on fire for life.
I am not a religious person. I tend to reject anything that even resembles an institution and so when this loud, sometimes crass, jokester began to appear regularly at my house I never for an instant thought the universe might be sending me a sign. But I have come to realize that God is funny like that. He has a way of placing people in your path whose lives and beings fit perfectly the needs you have.
It isn't like Alex gave me some great lecture on the need to love myself, or the importance of embracing your fellow human beings, he was not a craftsmen with words. He did something very few people can or do, he simply lived these ideals. There is a quote that I think perfectly embodies my friend, "Preach the gospel always, If necessary use words." ~ St. Francis of Assisi. Some people spend their lives giving instructions, delivering profound speeches, crafting carefully deliberated sermons, others of us agonize over how to transfer meaning through language, how to craft poetry that captures what it means to be alive, some of us just embody those lessons, those meanings. Alex was the latter. He embodied the ideals so many of us just pay lip service to. He saw poverty and homelessness and bought a plane ticket, packed a hammer and headed to Mexico to help build houses. After Hurricane Katerina he established a non-profit organization to help families rebuild their homes. He wasted no breath bragging. In fact, until he died, I didn't even know about his post-Katerina projects. He took St. Francis' advice, he didn't need words. He didn't require recognition. He helped because it was what needed to be done.
Over the nearly 22 years that I knew Alex he shared some of the most important moments of my life. He was there the day I adopted my first son, he sang at my church wedding, he helped my family ring in countless New Year's, he riled up my kids at birthday parties and he traveled hundreds of miles to be at our family's weddings. It breaks my heart to think that Alex will not be there anymore. It breaks my heart to think of his wife and children having to live the rest of their lives without him. I pray daily that they will feel his presence in their lives.
I have cried a lot over the past week but I've learned a lot too. I have been preached at many times in my life, listened to countless Sunday morning sermons, but as a writer I am all too aware of how words can manipulate emotion. Rhetoric often strikes me as hollow, as contrived. What a gift to have known a man like Alex, a man who taught so many of us the lessons of kindness, selflessness, and sacrifice. A man who did all this without well honed speeches or fancy rhetoric but with laughter, and with action.