By Mohammad Samra and Fernando Lopez-Flores
Grief has no timeline.
I walked over to the entrance of Fabian’s room and stared at the framed Chicago Bulls City Edition jersey I had gifted him on his birthday. Fernando and I agreed to purchase him the customized jersey as a sentimental gift, though I accidentally bought a second one which prompted me to frame it for him. I traced my finger over each of the six white letters that made up his last name. The same jersey we handed him four months ago, was all we had left of him.
On the day of his birthday party, Fernando and I greeted Fabian with high-fives followed by fist bumps. We were excited about seeing him for his birthday, but nervous because he said he had news about his situation he wanted to share in person. I handed him the gift bag with the jersey inside as he smiled in appreciation. He traced over the lettering of the jersey as he put his hand over his face. He began to sob as we surrounded him. He then told us that the cancer had not only returned, but had begun to spread.
I turned away from the jersey and looked toward the spot where Fabian once sat after he broke the news to us. He opened up about his fear of never getting a second chance at life, but we quickly consoled him. By convincing him to believe in himself, we subconsciously convinced ourselves that he was always meant to survive. As a result, we weren’t prepared for the current reality we faced.
Due to religious conflicts, I was not able to attend the mass held in Fabian’s honor at the end of the week, but here is a personal account from Fernando:
“I had never been a religious person, nor was I ever truly connected to my spirituality. After all, how can a benevolent God allow the pain and misery that my friend had to endure? I found solace in believing that there was no God, or better yet, not a good one.
I woke up on Sunday morning exhausted, I hadn’t been able to get any rest that week. It was a hot summer day, yet the sky was beautiful which slightly lightened the weight of the heat. At the request of his family, we all wore a Bulls shirt in order to commemorate Fabian’s memory through the team he supported with unwavering loyalty. I reached the doors of the church as friends and family members stood outside waiting for the ceremony to begin. The tension was much lighter, and I was astonished at the amount of people who came out to show support.
We all slowly walked in and made our way to our seats. I wasn’t able to remember the last time I had set foot in a church, let alone attend a mass. I looked all around me as I observed the gold paint complementing the white undertone over the walls. Each window was expertly carved into works of art and told a unique story. For the first time that week, I was able to relax and find some sort of comfort.
I watched Fabian’s family walk through the center as they held his urn. His mom came over to me and requested a special favor: recite a section of the Bible during the sermon. I was astonished. Not only was I nervous to recite it in Spanish, but I had not been baptized. However, I reluctantly agreed and spoke after his brother, Wills.
‘Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah…’ The words came naturally as I dedicated every single one of them to my best friend. As the ceremony continued, I was able to stand and speak about our friendship to a crowd full of his family and friends. From our stupid arguments to gut-wrenching laughter, he was the type of person who can light up the room with only a few words. As I ended my speech, I let the final words leave my lips and echo through the church: ‘He was a brother to me, and I am going to miss him.’
As we reached the end, we all broke down in tears as the wound inflected upon us stung even more. I wasn’t ready to let him go. However, I walked out much more relieved and thankful for the entire experience, something I never expected from church.
Even if I’m not on board with a divine being, I was able to find some comfort in knowing he may rest in a much better place.”
I struggled to make it through a single day without some aspect of my everyday life triggering a memory of Fabian. Playing video games took me back to the days me and him played NBA 2K16. Listening to music reminded me of the songs he introduced me to. As we sat with his brothers on the day after his death, one of the songs in his Spotify playlist caught my attention, “Sauce” by Suigeneris was on a constant loop in my playlist. Even posthumously, Fabian was still introducing me to music I’d never find myself.
Fernando and I visited the Ortega household often after Fabian’s passing. Each time, I learned something new about him which only made me miss him more. During one of our visits, Wills mentioned how Fabian still had copies of my first printed newspaper article I gave him over a year ago. He requested two so he could frame one and hang it in his room. As I opened the drawer and found the two newspapers, I was overcome with joy and sadness. I was humbled by how much my accomplishment meant to him, despite the constant struggles he faced.
One of my final text messages to Fabian was a promise to save him a seat at my house as I celebrated my 21st birthday with our friends. He enjoyed the thoughtfulness of the idea and thanked me for including him in part of the celebration, despite being unable to attend. Two months later, the same group of friends who attended my birthday party sat outside of Michael’s home, as we held a bonfire in Fabian’s honor. As promised, we saved him a seat at the center.
The once raging fire began to fade as we started to take chairs from the backyard into the kitchen. I stood in front of the chair we saved for Fabian, struggling to remove the shirt that displayed his picture from the lawn chair. I removed the Bulls jersey I ordered for myself and put it on over my shirt. I then slowly closed my eyes and removed the white shirt from the chair and carefully placed it over my shoulder. Seeing his image upright on the chair was the closest it felt to having him back. Deconstructing the chair made it feel as if I was losing him all over again. I found it difficult to cry in the month following his death, but the ride back home was the closest I came to shedding tears once again.
In the months following his death, Fernando and I developed a close relationship with Fabian’s family. We spent more time with Wills and G. Both boys carry parts of Fabian that are impossible to ignore. G looks like a younger version of his older brother, while Wills speaks and sounds almost exactly like Fabian. Both boys are quick-witted and have a sharp sense of humor, despite the recent trauma each of them faced.
Like my friendship with Fabian, I grew closer to the boys through our common love for basketball. Fernando, Wills and I occasionally went to parks to compete against other amateur players. As Wills dribbled up the court, I briefly made eye contact with him before cutting toward the rim. He passed me the ball as I caught and shot in one motion over a taller defender. As the basketball sailed through the net, I looked toward Wills as he gave me a nod of approval. That little exchange was the same I used to share with Fabian while playing basketball in our high school gym after school. I spent the rest of the day replaying the moment over and over again in my mind. Though completely unplanned, it became one of the many minor ways I incorporated Fabian into a world he no longer lives in.
I held the Aug. 23 edition of the Chicago Sun-Times in my left hand as Fernando and I made our way into Fabian’s house for his mother’s birthday party. An article I wrote for my internship was featured on page 31. It was my first article in a major newspaper, and I purchased 20 copies to share the accomplishment with those close to me. Hidden within the paper was a Spanish-translated version of my piece in place of where the original once was. Fabian’s mom primarily speaks and reads in Spanish, so Fernando helped me translate the piece, so she’d be able to read it comfortably.
During our next visit, I noticed the article was framed and hanging directly diagonal from Fabian’s urn. I was instantly reminded of Fabian’s intent to hang the article I handed him. Seeing the piece on his wall brought me more joy than being featured in the paper. My most significant accomplishment to date was also the first without Fabian here to see it. The second copy of my Sun-Times article hangs above my bed in my room. The first copy sits in Fabian’s desk, right next to the other two I gave him.
Despite my academic success throughout my Fall semester at Roosevelt, I found myself heavily struggling to maintain any kind of happiness. What was once uncontrollable sadness had simmered into numbness. Instead of thriving in an environment where I was building for my future, I desperately attempted to use work and school as a way to avoid coming face-to-face with the present. I purposely worked 12 to 16 hours a day for weeks in order to avoid my conscious. I found comfort in being too exhausted to string together any thoughts. It protected me from constantly trying to find a short-term solution to a long-term problem. For the first time, I wasn’t trying to fix what hurt me, I was only trying to survive.
After another long day of school and work, I gazed at the section of my room I dedicated to Fabian. Still struggling to find any happiness, I tried turning to journalism to rekindle my passion for life. The profession lifted me from tumultuous times before, and I often expressed myself through the articles I’d spend hours constructing. As I opened up my laptop, I attempted to type an article for the school newspaper centered around the importance of verification in news articles, especially before an upcoming election. However, after failing to create a compelling hook, I shut my MacBook in frustration.
I sat for 20 minutes before reopening my laptop and attempting to write about Fabian: I wanted it for my website, but I didn’t know how to properly honor him. Each one of my attempts at immortalizing him within my words fell short, at least in my eyes. For the first time, I fell out of love with journalism and decided to take a break from writing.
I sat alongside Wills, G and Fernando as we watched Jimmy Butler attempt to lead the Miami Heat to a Game 3 victory against LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. Fabian’s house became the only space where I wasn’t trapped inside my own head. My quest to find myself again transformed my favorite activities into temporary escapes from this dark and inevitable chapter of my life. Cheers echoed from Fabian’s room as the Heat hung on to cut their series deficit in half. As I celebrated with his brothers, I was exposed to an unfamiliar side of grief that was suppressed by the initial impact of losing a loved one.
How can you find beauty in something so tragic?