I’ll never forget the day that I met you. Fall of 2009, freshman year. 7th floor of West Vandenberg Hall at Oakland University. Room 766. Derek and I had our door open as we usually did. You walked past our propped door, came back, walked right into our room, and introduced yourself to me. You had a class with Derek; he sat in the front, you in the back.
“Hi, I’m Joel!”
I had no idea why you walked in without knocking, and to be honest, I was annoyed that some stranger took it upon himself to walk in uninvited.
That’s what I get for keeping my door open, I thought.
“I’m Robbie. Nice to meet you.”
Seven years later, our first encounter replays through my memory like a skipping CD. Over and over again, your warm demeanor and loud personality would walk uninvited into a space that you would frequent in the weeks after. Had you not been the Joel that everyone knows you to be, maybe you would have kept walking past that door. Maybe we would have never met.
Over the course of the next few years, I would come to know you in an entirely different way. Here’s this incredibly shy and introverted kid who loves poetry and reading, and this other guy who carries a good energy with him wherever he went. We became the unlikeliest of friends.
We spent many nights throughout college watching football or playing video games, talking about the Illuminati (‘it’s real,’ you would say. ‘I’m skeptical,’ I would respond), or finding new places to eat around town. You eventually moved away from campus and that gave us a place to go when we wanted to get away.
We didn’t always see eye to eye. I can remember when we would get into debates about politics or sports, always on seemingly opposite ends but willing to hear each other out. Even when we frustrated one another, we found a way to not let it come between our friendship. At the end of each conversation, we resolved to love each other the best way we knew how.
As I graduated from OU and moved to Akron for grad school, you always talked about coming to visit me. And again when I moved to Muncie for my first professional job, you talked about making the trip out. You wanted to see how I was living, what my life was like, who I was surrounding myself with. You had a way about showing people that you cared about them even from hundred of miles away. I never had to wonder if you loved me.
The last time we saw each other was at Lauren and Billy’s wedding in August of 2016. As Derek and I were part of the wedding party, I can remember standing around waiting to be directed towards the ceremony and I was looking for you. I knew you were there; we had just seen you a couple hours prior at our hotel room but I wanted to make sure you were there. You were a familiar face amidst a sea of faces that I didn’t recognize. You were a friend that I looked up to.
We all danced that night. None of us had rhythm but we didn’t let that stop us from embracing the moment. We shuffled around the dance floor, we laughed, we sang, and in the end, we exhausted ourselves from our practice in withness–being present together and taking in every moment.
When we got back to the hotel, we dove right into talking about life. Everything from sports to politics to love, nothing was off limits. I can remember looking at the clock as it read 2:00am and wanting nothing more than to be asleep, but I stayed up talking with you anyways because who knew when we would see each other again? We go so many months between visits, how could I pass this moment up?
Who knew that would be the last time we would have a conversation?
I sat at your funeral in disbelief. It didn’t feel real, even after seeing you lay asleep–peaceful and in a better place. Your body was there but that wasn’t you. It couldn’t be, I thought. As so many people mourned the loss of your life, I sat shocked out of any words to comprehend the moment. There’s a reason why I’ve always avoided funerals. I don’t handle loss of life well.
Even now, I think about how you’re gone too soon. How you’re not taking any more breaths. How you aren’t experiencing joy or excitement or heartache, and how extraordinarily grateful I am that you were able to feel those things for the 27 years you were alive.
Amidst the hurting and healing that will inevitably come from this, your legacy remains. I resolve to live my life as myself unapologetically. I will not mutter the words “I’m sorry” for simply existing within a space. I will love deeply just as you would if you were here. Just as you would want me to.
“What are you going to do to keep on living?”
A friend muttered these words to me when she was telling me her story of loss, of hurt, of healing. And so I’ll resolve to hold these words close and allow them to guide me in my life each day.
Because isn’t it such a precious gift to be alive? Aren’t we all fragile miracles in our own sense? Isn’t it wonderful to realize the gallons of blood in our bodies that are in a constant state of motion just so that we can take more breaths?
Joel, I think about you every single day. Each time I write about you, I remember something new–something I often overlooked about you–and I come to a better understanding of the person that you were in this world. I know that you would want us all to be happy, and so that’s what I’ll continue to set out to do.
As I keep living, I’ll hold you dear to me and live a life that you would be proud of.
I love you, buddy. Sweet dreams forever.