Last week, I lost a friend. I’ve been trying to work out how to say what I want to say, and of course, none of it is adequate.
Sam and I were in a play together, Grease, nearly four years ago now. That show was the most fun I ever had in high school. Though we had seen each other around before, and maybe even had a few conversations, rehearsals were the first time I had a chance to spend any real time with him. We were both cast as Greasers, but not the main ones: secondary leads with enough stage time to have some fun, but never really the center of attention.
I can hardly explain it. He had a sort of easy grace about him, a humility which came naturally to him—something that I envy. Four-point student, ASB president, Eagle Scout, athlete, thespian, musician: all of this, and I can’t remember a single time he spoke about himself, ever. And regarding anyone else, an unkind word never escaped his lips. He never looked down on anybody. From what it looked like, he didn’t even have to try to achieve all this. It was his first, not second, nature. He was a rare gift.
Sam was diagnosed with a rare form of intestinal cancer in November of 2006. I could hardly believe the news when I heard: only six months prior, we had been making fools of ourselves on stage together. I kept track of Sam’s struggle as best I could over the next two years, and I would see him every now and again on break. His hair, once thick and curly, now was either gone or straight and stringy. His old clothes hung off his now-delicate frame like ghosts. Yet he never lost that look, that posture, that paradox of humility and confidence in his eyes. It was like it didn’t even bother him. I’m not sure that it did. Sam, you could tell, did not fear death.
After his diagnosis, Sam was accepted into Notre Dame, gave a stirring graduation speech that got the whole crowd cheering, flew his first plane, and did all kinds of other things that most people don’t do when they’re healthy. I last saw him in December. He looked healthier than ever, the cancer, he was told, was receding, and he spoke brightly about the future.
It seemed to me a sure thing: a guy like Sam, a faithful friend, a strong Catholic, a lover of God—The Lord had big plans for Sam, and he would beat this thing and go on to be one of the greats.
But he didn’t. Sam died last Monday and left his parents, his three sisters, and the rest of us behind. There was a memorial service that Sunday, and Sam packed the house. It was a brand new Catholic church on the outskirts of town, still in construction, and thousands of people came to hear and speak about the love and truth that Sam brought into their lives, one way or another.
The funeral the next morning was just as beautiful. The priest read the Beatitudes, from the Gospel of Matthew, and I realized then that Sam embodied this text: he was poor in spirit, meek, he longed for justice, was merciful, pure of heart, and a peacemaker, especially. How could you not love him? He was blessed, and his was the kingdom of heaven.
The Orthodox churches teach that the goal of human life is to become like “little Christs.” And that was who Sam was: a little Christ. So I am unsure whether I think it befitting or cruel that if Sam was like Christ in his life, he was also like him in his torturous and premature death.
I wish I was a talented enough writer and theologian to develop this thought further. Somewhere I find hints of redemption in all of this pain, some suggestion that Sam’s purity combined with his suffering touches on something very basic, very fundamental about what it means to be human. I’ll keep chasing that.
All I can say in the meantime is that I find hope in that the Christian story has something of a twist at the end. The disciples only began to fully understand the significance of Jesus upon his resurrection from the dead. So it will be, at the end of days, with Sam as well.
See you then, old friend. May your memory spurn others to greatness in your stead.