By Mohammad Samra
I slowly walked into the Ortega household alongside my friend as I prepared to see a side of life I never had before: its end. We were welcomed by Fabian’s mom and taken to the room where he laid. We stood firmly by his side from the minute he was diagnosed to his final breath. Despite the pain we knew we were going to encounter, it was the least we could do for not only our friend, but our brother.
Only a few weeks ago, I received a message from Fabian to wish me a happy birthday. It was one of the few conversations we had where everything felt normal. For the majority of our friendship, Fabian and I were typical friends who grew closer through our love for sports and video games. We often avoided serious discussions in favor of debates over which NBA team had the best chance at securing a championship that season. He teased me whenever my beloved Chicago Cubs lost, and I returned the favor when his Bears did the same. No moment felt sweeter than watching the complete shock on his face as Cody Parkey, the Bears kicker, missed a game-winning field goal against the Philadelphia Eagles to advance them into the next round of the 2019 playoffs. It was the last memory we had together before he was diagnosed with cancer.
Fernando and I shuffled to each side of Fabian’s makeshift hospital bed as we tried to process the gravity of the image before us. We practically became brothers throughout our high school years and into our college lives. We were only just beginning our journey, and it was unfathomable to think that one of us might be nearing the end already. I let my fingers brush against Fabian’s shoulder, before the first round of tears started to flow.
After an hour of mind-numbing silence, we were joined by Michael, another close friend of ours. I placed my hand on his shoulder as he shed tears of his own. When I became weak, he did the same. It was the first time we saw each other so vulnerable.
We sat alongside Fabian for hours, hoping to elongate the time we had with him. We alternated between tears of laughter and sorrow as we temporarily escaped the grim reality before our eyes. We reminisced over our most memorable moments, wishing to return to the days where everything was much simpler. However, as soon as silence reemerged, the weight of what was happening came back to us, and the sound of noses sniffling and silent tears consumed the room once again.
By midnight, we sat silently in Fabian’s kitchen. We had spent four hours trying to muster up the courage to leave because we were all convinced we’d be saying our final goodbyes to Fabian that night. Fernando and Michael both sat on kitchen chairs while I laid across the kitchen floor. There was something oddly comforting about the hardwood ground and before I knew it, Fernando and Michael were sprawled out next to me.
About an hour later, Fabian’s brother, Wills, as Fabian called him, told us that his brother had gone to sleep for the night; his parents laid by his side exhausted. After sighs of relief, we all agreed to meet back at the Ortega household in the morning.
Fernando and I were the first to arrive. While the sight of Fabian at his weakest was still tough to handle, I was in a better mental state than the previous day. I was tasked with breaking the difficult news to our group. I sat in awe as the eight of us shared the same room. Deep down, I knew it was the last time we’d all be in the same room together as a complete group. We sat together as each person shared memories they had with Fabian as choruses of laughter followed. I studied Fabian’s face as I noticed little droplets of tears start to form and roll down his eyes. He couldn’t communicate with us, but he knew we were all there for him, to the very end. It was the most heartbreaking sight I’ve witnessed in my entire life.
Early in the afternoon, most of the group had to leave for work, each saying goodbye to Fabian with the promise of visiting again tomorrow. Michael, Fernando and I had decided to stay, but sat outside the house in order to give Fabian’s family some time with him. Before we knew it, nightfall came so we decided to return the following day and get some much needed rest.
We each took turns saying goodbye as Fabian laid in the dark as his room filled with a crisp breeze, instead of the typically humid air found on an evening in early July. After Michael and Fernando had finished, I slowly approached Fabian and thoroughly inspected him. I intertwined his hand with mine to let him know I was there. I passed on the opportunity to say goodbye the night before because I clung onto the belief that he’d pull through. As difficult as it was to accept, I knew the end was near, and I didn’t want him to go without knowing one final time how much he truly meant to me.
“You were a great friend; you were a great brother; I love you; I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I noticed Fabian’s chest rapidly rising and falling as I looked down and pulled away. I couldn’t see his face well, but I knew he was crying. The words I spoke to him continue to live with me now. I advised Fernando and Michael to use the phrase: “I’ll see you tomorrow” because this simple goodbye will forever carry both a literal and metaphorical connotation.
Fernando and I sat outside my home eating meatball sandwiches. We tried to get some resemblance of our normal lives, so we talked about the first thing to come to our minds: Mary Trump’s tell-all memoir on Donald Trump. In the midst of our conversation, Fernando looked at his phone before slowly lowering his head. I instantly knew the text message he received, but once he muttered the words: “he’s gone,” I burst into tears. Upon hearing the news, I was instantly taken back to my final moments with him. He passed away no less than an hour after I last spoke to him, but the exchange already felt like an eternity ago. His mom requested we head back, without hesitation, we were already on our way.
Still reeling from the news of his passing, Fernando and I proceeded to let the others in our group know of what happened. We agreed to head back to Fabian’s house to be there for his family. As we stood outside, I looked up at the window to Fabian’s room knowing he was still in there. There was a dark, undiscovered portion of life awaiting me on the other side of that door. It took us five minutes, but we went inside.
We joined many of Fabian’s relatives in his room as he laid motionless in his bed. I kept looking at his chest, waiting for a heartbeat. I wasn’t ready to accept this new reality where we now had to carry on without him. I waited for any kind of movement, but there was none. Much of the room was in tears; I held Fabian’s mother in my arms as she cried into my shoulder while I continued staring into Fabian’s lifeless eyes.
After 20 minutes, I received a call from Jordan, another member of our group. I excused myself from Fabian’s room as I stepped outside to break the news to him. After hanging up, I sat hunched over the pavement outside as I gazed into the sky. A minor drizzle gave way to heavier rain, though I didn’t flinch at the sensation of cold rain droplets pounding against the skin of my bare arms. It was the first time I had been alone with my thoughts and emotions since Fabian’s passing. Before I even had time to process my next thought, tears began uncontrollably streaming down the side of my cheeks. I didn’t have the strength to sob, so all I could muster were silent tears.
The door opened next to me as Fernando, Michael and Erik, another friend of ours, stepped outside. I continued to cry as they took seats next to me. As Jordan approached the house, I was able to recompose myself enough to prepare him for what awaited him inside. We did our best to pull ourselves together, and made our way back inside as friends and family continued to arrive.
At about 1 a.m., we all stood in the room as everyone said their goodbyes, one by one. I watched each and every one of my friends become teary-eyed as they spoke into Fabian’s ear. He had a special bond with each of us, but we were all connected by the same pain of losing him. As I approached him, I kneeled down and ran my fingers through his hair. I didn’t need to say much to him. He knew exactly how much I valued him when he was alive, and that was at least something I could be at peace with. I thanked him again for being an amazing friend to me and told him that I’d see him again someday.
I maintained my composure until I walked out of the room and toward the living room and faced a corner with my head down so that nobody could see me. As I crouched down, I saw my tears begin to drop onto the hardwood floor. I had never cried as much as I had over the last two days. The most outlandish nightmare found in the darkest part of my mind had become my reality.
We all sat united as we waited for Fabian to be lifted out. I scrolled through our final conversations, absorbing each word one-by-one. We spoke of his life after finally beating his cancer. I told him how excited I’d be to have him and the guys at my graduation party the following year while he emphasized how excited he was to plan events with us on a regular basis. I had convinced him that it was only a dark chapter of his life and, in the process, I convinced myself as well.
At 3 in the morning, two employees of the funeral home came to take Fabian. The entire room stood up in silence as they entered Fabian’s room, placed him in a black bodybag and stretchered him out. Some didn’t have the strength to watch, while others uncontrollably sobbed. I felt my stomach start to churn as I struggled to cope with what was happening. I looked around and viewed the anguish on the faces of my friends. Through tears, I met eyes with some of them, while others remained locked onto the bodybag that held Fabian’s body.
Once they were done, we moved to the kitchen and began detailing some of our fondest memories with him. However, through the conversations, I sat against the kitchen door with my elbows rested on my knees, staring into the distance. I tried fidgeting with my mask, but my mind had completely left my body. It took an hour for me to find the strength to even stand up. I was left completely incapacitated, as if my soul left my body that night too.
Typically, when I find myself sad, I immediately look for ways to make myself feel better. Whether through video games or music, I naturally look to improve my mood. But, as I sat there that day, motionless and expressionless, all I felt was broken and defeated; I realized there is no instant solution to what exactly I was feeling. I knew I was broken to an extent I had never been before, and I’d remain that way for a very long time.