Putting it into Perspective…

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 city–Washington, DC– 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 yes–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 Cellar–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 me–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 eater–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 positive–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 time–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 falter–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 was–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.

Your GFF.

37 thoughts on “Putting it into Perspective…

  1. Thanks, Yas. I didn’t know if it could stay “on message” but what I learned from Jason absolutely is “on message” and sharing his/our background made me so very happy. We can all learn from someone like him.

  2. Thanks, Allison!!! You were his other GFF!! πŸ™‚ Somewhere up in heaven he’s having a Cactus margarita! πŸ˜‰

  3. Wow – that was touching! Jason sounds like the greatest friend ever, and I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m sure he’s up there cheering you on as you embark on your new, healthy life!

  4. I hope you send a copy of this to his parents. My husband’s sister died young & I know they love to hear from her friends about how much she meant to them, especially on anniversaries like this.

    That was very touching. Sounds like the world lost a great man!

  5. Thank you Molly. I haven’t sent it to his parents yet; I keep in touch with them a little though and might send it along. I am sure they appreciate whenever I, or Allison or Jason’s other friends have written them or called … good idea!

  6. As a follow-up to this post: I did email it to Jason’s parents and got the most beautiful response…thank you for giving me the courage to share it with them.

  7. Mel,
    This is Jase’s uncle Kenny. I think I learned more about this wonderful guy from your comments than I really ever knew first hand. You are truly one of his greatest friends ever. And I agree. We’ve all learned so much from this wonderful human being. I will always miss him.

  8. That was absolutely beautiful and for many reasons, I cried.

    Thanks for sharing. You were both lucky to have each other and I’m so glad his legacy lives on.

  9. It’s been so long since someone called me Mel, Kenny–that was Jase’s name for me. That warms my heart; thank you. We all will always miss him–he was a special, special friend and a wonderful human being.

    Thank you, Staci…

  10. Melissa,

    We knew Jase had great friends, but this tribute is really something very moving, very close to the essence of friendship, and without a doubt is a wonderful antedote to the pain and sadness we feel every day not having him with us. As his parents, we can only wipe away the tears with the collective memory of the great friends he left behind. As Ken said, your insight and common bond was truly remarkable. Your writing is beautiful and reflects a soul that it would be anyone’s dream to trade life’s struggles with. To be able to say it like you have, revealing things that help us to remember our beloved son, is a gift that we will treasure. Thanks for this remarkable reflection from every one here in Towson. We all love you for bringing Jase to life again, if only for a brief moment in time.

  11. Oh Doug, thank you so much…you and Jan and Scott are always in my thoughts. You raised an incredible son, and though he was taken much too soon, he’s here still in some sense. Thank you for giving me the most amazing friend, and I love you all.

    With love, Melissa

  12. I stumbled across this post in a Google search, and it caught me so off-guard that it make me cry. I can relate to the story in so many ways.

    I’m also a student in DC, and I’m also gay and struggle with my weight and with eating disorders. I used to think being fat and gay was such a curse, and the worse thing that someone could ever be. That was until my best friend was diagnosed with brain cancer. It put everything into perspective for me and cleared my head. My friend is in remission now, and he’s doing well. As for myself, I’m about halfway to my goal weight but happy with my life and content with my nonetheless.

    I had been feeling discouraged lately, but reading this reignited that fire in me.

    Thank you for sharing your story about Jason.

  13. I am so glad to hear your friend is doing well, SR!! He was an amazing friend, and he is always a part of me. Hard to believe this past Friday was three years already. 😦

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