Today marks the two-year memorial of my best (male) friend from college, Jason, who died after a brave, five-year battle with brain cancer on August 21, 2006 at the tender age of 27.
Jason and I met the very first day of college at American University during the Freshman Service Experience, a pre-freshman-orientation program that grouped students together throughout our new cityâ€“Washington, DCâ€“ to do volunteer work the week before classes began.
Big and brawny and sarcastic as a whip, we hit it off immediately. From Mt. Lebanon, Pa., he knew everything about everything, and wasn’t afraid to challenge you … or praise you.
He was an “equal opportunity offender” whose face is next to the word “snark,” in Webster’s, but he had a heart of gold.
He was convinced he was Jewish (like me and half of AU!) even though his last name was Smith (”My grandmother was German and she made kugel!”).
And he was the only guy I know who lined his cabinets and knew more about the style of my jeans than I did. (If you’re wondering if he was gay, the answer was yesâ€“but as he says, he “didn’t know it then”).
The last day of the summer program was a field trip to Kings’ Dominion. The night before, I’d gone out to a seedy club in DC (The Cellarâ€“no longer there, but an old-school AU/GW haunt) and then had stayed up all night with the girls in my dorm watching the Princess Diana tragedy unfold on TV. I was tuckered out by the time I hit the hay at 5 a.m.
I must have turned my alarm off or something because I got a frantic call that morning from him. “There you are! We’re waiting downstairs and the bus is going to leave without you, Mel!” (Even then, I was “Mel”).
I threw on street clothes, brushed my teeth, and ran like the wind to get to the parking lot. I gave him a bear hug when I got on the bus, grateful he was looking out for meâ€“the first week of college, it’s not like you know anyone!
And so began our easy friendship… through college and beyond, he was always by my side in one capacity or another. In fact my first-ever college e-mail was sent from his e-mail address.
Freshman and sophomore year we (and our group) were inseparable, and then junior year I went abroad. He made a new group of friends and branched out some, but we still stayed close thanks to a shared love of Cactus Cantina margaritas, expensive coffee drinks, politics and celebrity gossip.
Unlike my husband, who loves me in anything and would never comment on the size of my butt in jeans (except in a flattering sense of course!), Jason was the best person to have in the next dressing room at Banana Republic…he didn’t mince words. The epitome of honesty, and I cherished it.
Jason dealt with eating issues even before I did. He had been on the heavy side most of his life, but his weight fluctuated over the years. Toward the end of our sophomore year of college, he began an obsessive food regimen and started working out like mad, trading midnight McDonald’s runs (his fave) for the treadmill at 2 a.m. (something he’d have loathed before).
Though we didn’t have a term for it then among our group of friends, he was a disordered eaterâ€“a binger who at times dealt with his own form of anorexia (”manorexia”) and over-exercising …
He went from overweight to really skinny to “normal”. (It was only later that the truths of how he’d lost the weight came to fruition. And then the cancer came).
But one thing that never changed throughout his various transformations was his unwavering loyalty as a friend. Through thick and thin (yours or his) he was loyal til the end.
I’d never met a better shopping buddy or foodie friend; we used to tease that we were “dating” because we’d do things that couples do, like go to movies, or go out to dinner… except never hook up. I know it’s rare to find that kind of friendship, where there’s deep love but no attraction, where it’s absolutely, 100% platonic… but that’s what we had.
I always suspected that Jason was gay “but didn’t know it yet.” Of course, we all loved him anyway and just wanted him to be happy. He was there through the good times and the heart-aches I went through, but he didn’t really date; that always made me sad.
Every summer, we’d go to Kings’ Dominion to “rekindle our love” and recall that day in August 1997 when he saved me from missing the trip. He was there for my when my then-boyfriend (now husband) moved back to El Salvador. And even after we graduated and he moved to Baltimore and I stayed in DC, we hung out whenever we could.
The November after we graduated college, Jason was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I’ve never met anyone who fought as hard as he did, or who could laugh about cancer like he could. (Can anyone really laugh about it? Meet Jason!)
A year and a half or so before he died, he finally, finally came out to his family and friends… I think we all knew, but he hadn’t said anything all those years despite the neon signs… it was up to him to come out when he was ready. And we were all so thrilled for him to finally be able to accept who he was!
In retrospect, I wonder now if he knew somehow that his time was going to be cut short, because at that point, he’d beaten his cancer with the best doctors at Duke (Ted Kennedy’s brain surgeon was Jason’s, too, Dr. Friedman). In fact, if my memory serves me right, he was in remission back then when he came out. The cancer didn’t come back til the winter of 2005.
Around Christmas that year, I met his partner Matt (who he’d been referring to previously as his “friend”) and totally dug him; they made each other so very happy and it made me so happy to know that Jason was experiencing love, what all our friends wanted for him.
He was busy with his new relationship so I didn’t see him a ton that winter/spring, at least not like usual.
And I was actually here in Michigan the weekend he was dying.
I was being flown in for a job interview for August 18 (for the company where I work today). Right before I left, a dear friend called me to tell me that Jason had taken a turn for the worse, hospice was involved … and he didn’t want visitors… Still, I debated staying in DC to visit with him, even if only for a second.
But my parents and husband convinced me to come for the interview because Jason wouldn’t want me to miss an opportunity like this, and really, what could I have done there anyway if he didn’t want visitors at that point?
So I came here, with great hesitation, and fell into my husband’s arms.
The positiveâ€“I truly felt like I nailed the interview. And I guess I did because I was offered the job on the spot. (I really feel like he was looking out for me in some way) and was rendered speechless. (I said yes of course!)
My mother-in-law and sister-in-law were visiting at the time from El Salvador, and I was so distracted the whole timeâ€“knowing that my first friend from college lie dying in Maryland … and I feared not making it back on time.
I vowed to come see him that Monday as soon as I got back, and left a voice mail on his parents’ answering machine from the airport that Sunday night about visiting Monday.
But Jason never got the message; he died early that morning, I think before the sun even rose. He was no longer in pain, no longer suffering. Finally, he was at peace.
I never got the chance to say goodbye, or to see him one last time. And I felt horribly guilty for a long, long, long time.
But as the two years have passed since his tragic death, I’ve learned a couple life lessons that are relevant to this blog on disordered eating that I’d like to share here.
First, Jason truly lived every day like it was his last . Even before he got sick, he embraced life and lived with gusto. If he wanted ice cream, he ate it. If he wanted a new pair of sneakers, he bought them. If he hated his job, he quit in favor of something better. The boy didn’t waste a second of his life, and that is enviable. He definitely didn’t sweat the small stuff, or get caught up in the little details of life.
Second, in the face of great adversity, he didn’t falterâ€“it only made him stronger. Cancer didn’t stop him. He was a huge proponent of trying out new, experimental drugs and didn’t mind being a “lab rat” if it meant he’d zap the cancer for good. And he never wanted anyone to feel pity for him. Ever.
And finally, he learned to accept himself for who he wasâ€“and love himself as he was. I think that is the greatest gift of all.
When I put it into perspective, my challenges with disordered eating are nothing compared with what my friend went through. And in his honor, I will continue to fight and come out on top.
So today, I want to thank you, Jase, because I know somehow, somewhere you’re reading this… The naive Jersey girl who you teased back in 1997 of wearing a Blossom hat and “Frankie” shoes misses you dearly.