My mom's best friend's name is Roland.
He became her best friend when she started working at West Point five years ago. And, during that time, he became a very, very close friend of mine too.
He was in his sixties, and he was amazing. He was fun and loud and hilarious and boisterous. He was active and lively and full of laughter. He was just phenomenal.
He and I would talk on the phone and trade salacious emails where we'd pretend that we were having an illicit affair.
I called him my Pot-Bellied Stallion and he called me his Slut Puppy.
He adored my mother. He was deeply religious. But he had a foul mouth and a dirty mind. He told raunchy jokes. He smoked cigarettes.
I loved being around him.
Then, suddenly, he fell ill.
He had been complaining of stomach pains for a while, but he was a military vet, and the Army docs just kept telling him it was an ulcer. After his hundredth second opinion in early September of 2004, they finally determined that he had prostate cancer.
They transferred him to another VA hospital, and after about two weeks there, we found out he had prostate cancer,
an enlarged heart,
and failing kidneys.
He had been in one hospital or another for only four weeks when he was moved into intensive care. A day later, it was clear that it was time to say our goodbyes.
He was on life support, but it was agreed that they were only keeping him alive until his family could get there to say their own goodbyes.
My mom and I went to see him there, an early October afternoon, and he was like a caricature of who he used to be. In what I guess was a coma, he looked like a grotesque puppet, with all the tubes stretching from his body into the machines around him, and the line holding the breathing tube in his empty mouth. It was horrible.
But while we were in his room, talking to him, stroking his hand and telling his closed eyes that we loved him, he sprang awake. And he looked right at my mom, he clawed at her arm, and he tried in vain to speak. We were shocked, and clamored to be seen one last time by his eyes. We told him we loved him, yelled it in the quiet halls of the sterile ICU, and asked if he could hear us. He nodded "yes" furiously.
And then he passed back out.
He never woke up again. He was gone, but the imposing machines around him kept his heart beating, his lungs breathing.
It was, at once, the most horrible and beautiful moment of my life.
Because I will always think of that shell of a man when I think of Roland now; I have to struggle to see the face of the man I actually knew. But I will also always think that I got to see the moment his soul left this earth, and I wouldn't trade that for the world.
Sometimes I wish I hadn't seen that part of his passing, because, most times, it's all I can see when I think of him. But just because it's the most easily recalled, doesn't mean there isn't beauty to be found in it. Because for the horrifying time thereafter, when my mom and I struggled with the reality of his absence - his name and number in my cell phone that I would never use again, my mom confronted by his empty office, his coffee mug, his limp lab coat hanging in its usual place in the clinic - I can still think of that and feel warm.
That memory reminds me how much I love him. And it's easy to forget the little things - The lilt of his Boston accent, his skinny legs, his throaty laugh, the way he pronounced my name, the way he hugged my mother, the wrinkles around his eyes when he smiled - but that memory will never leave me.
And even if it's the only memory I ever keep of him, it's strong enough to last forever.
We passed out the yellow Livestrong bracelets when he was laid to rest, because he wore one. Not quite a year later, I'm still wearing mine. To think of him.
So when people point to my wrist and say "Why do you wear that?" my answer is simple:
For my Pot-Bellied Stallion.