By Mohammad Samra
I raced around my uncle’s living room, nearly screaming at the top of my lungs as if everyone in the apartment complex was wide awake at 4 in the morning.
I stared in disbelief at my Best Buy order confirmation. The blue and white screen showed a confirmation message for Sony’s latest console, the PlayStation 5. I spent the last week trying and failing to obtain the most demanded system on the planet until I was notified of a late night restock through a Twitter account I followed to keep track of available systems.
On the surface, my obsession with obtaining the PS5 was illogical. I had many financial responsibilities to adhere to, yet I recklessly spent money on nearly every single PS5 product Sony had made, instead of spending it on my tuition. However, I wasn’t merely chasing the newest generation of a video game system, but a rare opportunity to reignite the feelings of joy and happiness that have been so absent within me for over four months. Unsure of when that opportunity would present itself again, I was willing to spend every last penny found in my bank account to ensure that it didn’t slip away from my fingers.
In hindsight, the moment began a new chapter of the grieving process for me. I still thought about Fabian every day, but I also found myself smiling more, laughing louder, singing to my music and enjoying my place in life again.
From the moment Fernando and I went to visit Fabian on his death bed to the moment I secured a PS5, I felt like a distant, unrecognizable version of myself. I had been so consumed by coping with the trauma associated with grief, I had neglected the substantial growth I’ve made in the process.
Despite laboring through my lowest point, the most painful moment of my life forced me to become the best version of myself. I became a leader, at my job and in my own life. I have become much more vocal, empathetic and focused. I have started to learn from the valuable lessons of my struggles and have started to enjoy my days much more.
More importantly, I allow myself to live in the moment. I know now that life continues moving forward without any care of whether I want it to or not. I’ve learned to love the “normal” days and approach each one as if it were my last, because, eventually, it will be. I now understand the importance of pictures which makes me regret not taking more with Fabian, so I wholeheartedly abandon my shyness when I am asked by his family to be part of a picture. The most important thing I learned is that everything happens for a reason. Though ugly and unapologetically painful, grief has provided me the tools I need to understand life in a way I never have before.
I sped down Harlem Avenue on a frosty December night, singing Eminem’s: “Premonition,” word-for-word at the top of my lungs. The accomplished artist just released the deluxe edition to his album “Music To Be Murdered By,” so Wills, G and I agreed to listen to it together for the first time on the night it was officially released.
We sat in Fabian’s room for about an hour, nodding our heads as each song bled into the other. The room burst into laughter as Eminem started the track, “Gnat,” by rapping about how his “bars are like COVID” because you get them “right off the bat.” After listening to the album, we sat until 1:30 a.m. trying to decide what our favorite song was.
Before Fabian passed, I made a promise to myself that I’d look after his family for him, no matter what. After the first month of grieving, I thought it would be impossible for me to maintain such a grand responsibility: How could I possibly attempt to ease the pain of someone else if I can’t even tend to my own pain? I wasn’t even sure if I had the emotional strength to return after the day he died. Up to that point, visiting Fabian had an aura of sadness attached to it. We’d spend hours hanging out in an attempt to temporarily remove him from the difficulties he faced, sometimes it worked, other times it didn’t. Everyone who had an attachment to Fabian refused to think of the idea of having to let him go, until the day arrived when we were forced to.
Now when I visit the Ortega household, the gravity of losing Fabian still remains, but a new feeling of hope permeates within the air. As with everything, time heals all wounds. At one point, it was difficult to even mention Fabian. Now, we incorporate him into our conversations and laugh at some of the memories we all shared with him.
I remember holding Wills in my arms as Fabian laid motionless behind us. I told him if he ever needed anything to let me know. Since that moment, we’ve developed a distinct relationship extremely similar to the one I had with Fabian. I used to never care about being a role model, but I try to guide him as best I can, while still continuing to learn my own life lessons. Only a year ago, I saw him as solely Fabian’s brother; now, he’s a brother of my own.
G used to be extremely shy around Fernando and I, when we would visit. He’d only let out a small grin while waving to us before running back to his room. Now, G is completely outgoing around us; he always manages to light up a room. He once lifted Wills and nearly put him through a table set up in the middle of Fabian’s room. His youthfulness and energy make him easy to get attached to.
The first time I spoke to Fabian’s father was to tell him how grateful I was for his son’s friendship. Despite having a language barrier, I was able to communicate to him how important Fabian was to me through one of my friends. Seeing his smile slowly widen over the last few months is one of the best parts of visiting. He once came home to the sight of me teaching Wills and G about different football plays on the same cement I had sat alone crying on the night of Fabian’s death. It was the happiest I’ve seen him since that day.
As Fabian’s time slowly ran out, I had the opportunity to really bond with his mother. We sat alongside Michael and Fernando on the kitchen floor talking about our friendship with Fabian and learning more about each other. We also learned of how he talked about us and the memories we shared. We slowly learned so much more about the friend we all cherished so dearly.
Through my countless visits, I’ve watched my best friend’s family become a family of my own. Fabian’s mother occasionally tells visitors she adopted me. Despite our religious differences, she, along with the rest of her family, respect my beliefs and often look to learn more about my religion. Since she only speaks Spanish, I’ve tried to slowly develop my knowledge of the language so we can directly communicate with each other.
At one point, I never could imagine a life without Fabian present. After painstakingly coming to terms with that reality, I now cannot envision a life without his family. Despite our connection being formed by our indescribable pain, our grief was used as a stepping stone to establish an unbreakable bond. They provided me the strength I needed in my weakest moment, and I hope I was able to do the same for them.
Since regaining my appreciation for life, I’m infinitely grateful for being confronted by my most glaring vulnerabilities. Witnessing Fabian’s journey not only made me acknowledge and admire his strength, but also made me ashamed of my own weaknesses. I stressed myself for the longest about my future. Meanwhile, Fabian didn’t know whether he’d live to see a new year. While I complained about the mental and physical strain of my life, Fabian had to undergo various surgeries and the mental struggles of being told by doctors that nothing could be done to save him.
Fabian expressed his gratitude for having us by his side as he progressed through his battle, but watching him fight made it easier to set aside the difficulties of seeing him in his state in order to battle right alongside him, right to the very end.
He admitted to me his greatest fear: to be left behind. As each person within our inner circle progressed with their lives, Fabian was forced to put his life on hold, with no timetable for the future. Despite ultimately losing his battle with cancer, I’m able to take comfort in the fact that he no longer is suffering. I can pursue my dream life knowing I carry a portion of him within me, despite him being entire worlds away.
I can accept that though he rests peacefully, he remains alive through those who love him most. It wasn’t until after he passed, I realized how many individuals he truly touched.
I gladly set aside random nights to reminisce about Fabian. I’ll sit in my recliner, crack open a can of Monster and stare at the section of my room I reserved for him. I still occasionally feel knots in my stomach when glossing over our old conversations but look back at our memories much more fondly than I once did.
I always viewed Fabian’s passing as the ending to our story, but it was really only the ending of our first chapter. In death, he’s taught me much more than anyone in my life ever has. He remains just as much a part of my everyday life as he did when he was alive. Though I couldn’t help him win his battle with cancer, he succeeded in helping me win my first bout with grief. Ultimately, the most painful people to lose are the ones you loved the most, so I take pride in my pain because it meant my bond with Fabian was truly extraordinary.
Despite being able to claim a victory over grief, I understand that the trauma never truly goes away. There is no formula or cheat code to overcoming the loss of a loved one. There is no specific timetable or coping mechanism that instantly relieves the pain. It has been eight months since Fabian passed away, but some days, I’m stuck reliving that fateful day.
I know there’s still so much to learn about loss and grief; especially when it manifests itself in different ways for different people. So, it’s not a question of whether I’ll mourn again, but when. Even before losing Fabian, I knew that death was inevitable, but now I’ve learned to accept that death is what makes life so special.
We all await our deaths, from the sickest individual to the healthiest human being. With each passing day we grow closer to our own demises. So, why do we not mourn our entire lives over a loss we’re certain is coming? Dark days are guaranteed, and the bright ones are never promised. However, seeing death up close taught me to enjoy life instead of wasting it on worrying about my personal doubts and mistakes.
After being broken for months, I’m approaching my graduation as the most complete version of myself. While I have a few people to thank for my resurgence, Fabian maintains his place at the top of that list. When I finally receive my bachelor’s degree, I plan on driving straight to his house and posing with the framed picture of him sitting in the living room, before happily posing alongside his family. I’ve accepted that though I may not be able to celebrate with him physically, I can still carry him with me as I continue the journey he started alongside me.
This is how I found the hidden beauty in something so tragic.