You know those things in life you hope never come to fruition? Those depressing or horrifying potential realities you wish and pray you never have to experience? For me, this week has been the head-on collision with a long pending reality I have done my best to believe would never become the world I lived in. My best friend is dead. He fought harder than anyone I’ve ever known to stay with us for as long as he could, but in the end he needed to be at peace. Two days have passed since I received word he was failing fast, and in that time I’ve shed more tears than I knew my body could create. I’ve also felt adrift, lost in a universe I no longer recognize as my own. I’ve collapsed to the floor in a fit of sadness, clenched my fists with rage towards the unknown, and stared blankly at various screens while friends and family try their best to make sure I’m okay.
I think I’ve gone numb, to tell the truth. Justin asked me months before he went downhill to take on the responsibility of calling everyone he knew and loved when he passed. It was the kind of thing I accepted without believing I would ever really have to do it, and yet there I was - running from a critic’s screening in downtown Boston with tears in my eyes, knowing I would soon be talking to every friend and acquaintance I had met over the better part of the decade to tell them the darkest timeline is the one that come to exist. I started with my fiancé, followed by my parents. They were all understandably shocked, but also immediately questioning how I was doing. I was shattered. I couldn’t breathe. I was walking through life completely detached from everything around me. I can’t tell you if it was warm or cold, or whether I accidentally bumped into several strangers while stumbling through AMC Boston Commons with tears in my eyes. I was trying to get home and process everything, but my brain was screaming for me to run. I knew however, that such actions were not an option.
Justin would have loved that Community reference from the paragraph above, by the way. He and I shared many things in life, but a mutual appreciation and overuse of stupid pop culture references was definitely a big one. Had I been writing this about any of our other friends and thought to reference timelines, I would have immediately texted him to see if I was being witty or coming across as an asshole. Knowing Justin, he probably would have replied “both” and laughed right along with me.
I actually made two sets of calls on Tuesday. The first was to tell everyone Justin was fading, and looking back I’m not too sure why I jumped the gun with those messages. Part of me believed if everyone knew the situation and we collectively channeled our hopes, prayers, well wishes, and the like together we could force the universe to give us one of those often discussed and oh so rarely seen miracles. There was also a part of me that thought those ideas were nonsense, and the reason for that was because Justin would never have told anyone to put thoughts or prayers into anything. He was very much the person who would tell you that the universe has a plan all its own, and as much as you may like to think it relies on how you’re feeling about things to determine its next move that idea could not be farther from the truth. He’d tell me science outweighs religions, and I would have fired back that faith and religion are not the same. He’d counter again, I’d return, and eventually we would order a BBQ chicken pizza. We wouldn’t have settled anything, but we’d both be content. After all, pizza was way more important.
The second set of calls were the ones I truly dreaded, but shortly after 630pm EST on Monday night I knew they needed to be made. The last way anyone should learn about the passing of someone they care about is through social media. I know the internet makes a lot of things simpler, but there is nothing simple about the grieving process. It’s not the kind of thing that impacts everyone the same, and it can take an extremely long time to pass. I wanted people to hear from me about Justin’s passing, and even though my fingers were shaking from the overwhelming feelings coursing through my body I somehow managed to call over a dozen people in the course of an hour. I started with our closest brothers, Ben and Grant, whom Justin and I shared the bulk of our memories. Grant and I had a falling out a little over a year ago that never sat well with Justin, but we have taken steps in recent months to rebuild our once strong connection. He knew why I was calling before he answered, but somehow held himself together until I managed to say “he’s gone” through what I imagine were clearly audible sobs. We didn’t say much after that, but we did cry. As we’re both living in coastal cities on opposite sides of the map, the distance was great, but in that moment we were together. We needed one another and we needed to mourn our friend. Ben came next, but unfortunately I was unable to reach him by phone after several tries. He got the news eventually, but we didn’t talk for another day. When we did, I think we were both pretty mad at the universe, but through talking we both calmed down. There were no tears between us, but the sadness was still very much present.
I thought about going into the other calls, but the more I think about it the more I want to keep those moments close to the chest for now. There are people I’ve spoken with in recent days that I had not talked to in months, if not a year or more. It’s incredibly hard to call anyone and say someone you both know has died, but it’s even harder when you have no idea how the person on the other end of the line feels about the person in question. I only know how JP felt about them, and some were brothers, others great friends, and one or two were even friends he once talked about marrying. Those were the hardest of the bunch. I wanted to ask people if they knew just how much they meant to Justin, but I held back. While it’s definitely my place to let them know they were loved deeply, I think the context of those emotions should remain with Justin. I also think those whom he felt a special closeness with knew of his emotions, even if they were never shared in conversation.
You probably don’t know this about me, but I struggle with facing tough emotional situations. I think we all do, to an extent, but it’s something I’ve been aware since the early months I knew Justin. He recognized right away that I was someone who loved to make others happy. I would go out of my way to help friends, but if I needed something or if I felt terrible for whatever reason I would close myself off from the world. I cannot tell you why I do this, but it’s something that happens. Justin knew I would do the same thing when he passed, and I think that’s why he asked me to contact all of our friends. I’m the guy who knew him best outside of family, yes, but I am also the one who was most likely to do everything he could to avoid facing the fact the person he entrusted everything to had passed away decades before he thought he would. He knew that I would pile as much work on top of myself to stay busy, and unless someone called me I would likely not reach out for support when struggling to stop the tears and snot from pouring out of my face. He asked me to make those calls because he knew it would force me to confront the reality of the situation, and more importantly to begin coping with his passing.
I realized all this after the first or second call to our friends, and to be honest I wanted to simultaneously punch Justin in the face for caring so much to put me in this position and hug him until he said my grip was too firm for finding a way to show me he would still be watching out for me even when I thought he was too far gone. He always knew what I needed to do, but he would never tell me. He would say, “It’s not my place to tell you what life wants you to do, man. You need to see it for yourself and understand why that’s what needs to be done. If I tell you then you won’t learn anything. You’ll just keep repeating the same patterns over and over again until your completely miserable and have only yourself to blame, or me - if I tell you.” He wanted me to figure things out and see why he thought differently.
I get it now, Justin. You knew my instincts would be to run and hide, but there is no hiding from life this time. You’re gone, and I am here with a overwhelming sense of sadness weighing on me as if it were that old car of yours we rode around in throughout college. You never talked about the after life and you never wanted to hear anything about religion, so I’m not going to write about those things when I tell people about the years we spent being as close to brothers as any two men on Earth. I am, however, going to tell everyone about this one last thing you put in place for me before you passed. This is the worst pain I have ever felt, but I know it needs to exist in order for me to continue living my life, and without you making sure I would have to face it I don’t know when I would have done so. Thank you, brother. Even though you’ve gone you’re still teaching me how to live.