Our theme for October is “Why I Believe.”
In the long procession line, I was watching Dave’s mom: every time someone hugged her, she turned her face away from their shoulder, and stole a glance of her son in the casket. When I finally reached her, I told her that Dave really grew into his face. She and I looked at him again. “He did, didn’t he.” Growing up, he looked as if he had always just woken up from a nap, with eyes squinting and dimpled cheeks when he smiled. His twenty-eight-year-old man’s face was defined and handsome. “What a great guy,” I said.
You never know what to say.
I wanted to tell his mom that she did a great job. She raised a good man. I wanted to tell his father that he was a good man and that he raised a good man. But who am I to say that? They hadn’t seen me since the 90s; I hadn’t seen Dave in ten years. I would want someone to say that to my mom and dad.
I liked him—even though we weren’t close, he was the kind of guy who you wanted to be around. I played hockey with him on and off from sixth grade until we we were seniors in high school. He brought a smile and positivity that was rare in the awkward middle school years, and confidence that was equally uncommon in high school. When everyone else was putting on a mask, he was authentic.
He was a leader, and I know that a little from personal experience with him, and a lot from the bar after the visiting hours. The poor bartenders were overwhelmed when almost a hundred twenty-somethings showed up to celebrate their friend’s life.
I walked in with Matt, Chris, and Bryan—three friends who I grew up playing hockey with. Colton was somewhere in the bar—his mom told us when she saw us in line. I wonder what he looks like, I asked Matt. He said, “Just look for a tall guy.” With these new parameters, I found Colton almost immediately, and waded through the crowd to him.
“Hey, Colton,” I shouted to him.
“Hi, how’s it going.” He leaned in and shook my hand, looking at me puzzled, trying to place me.
“OH shit! Bart! What the hell, wow! What’s up buddy?!”
We hugged, then Matt and Colton hugged, and then the other guys found us.
“This place is packed!” I said.
“What a credit to Dave”, Colton said.
Colton was Dave’s best friend—the first friend that Dave made when he moved to Bedford. You didn’t say Dave Ahern without thinking about Colton Sullivan. Our two towns, Lexington and Bedford, combined to create Lexington Bedford Youth Hockey, and our team was called the Blue Lightning. Because what other color is lightning. The three Bedford guys on the team were Dave Ahern, Colton Sullivan, and Brandon Sheehan—we called their line the “Bedford Connection” after the famous “French Connection” line that played for Montreal. When you play hockey with someone long enough, you develop chemistry. You know what they are going to do before they do it. Playing with certain guys, you know who will shoot and who will pass and when they will do it. You know what makes them mad, what they’ll do if they are mad, and how they will stick up for you. You can tell a lot about someone the way they play. Are you a selfish person? Are you a punk? Are you a hard worker? Are you tough?
Brandon Sheehan joined us moments later, and the six of us stood around, exchanging stories about youth hockey, Dave, and what we’re up to now. “You playing anywhere?” I asked. “Well, we’re looking for one more now,” Colton said. Moments of reality like this stung me—realizing that you’re going to need someone to take the place of a friend, not because he’s out on vacation for a couple weeks, or because he’s moving to California, but because he has died. These small logistical realizations hit me, but must have rocked Colton and Brendan.
What do I believe.
I kept looking at him in the casket, willing him to pop up, willing the color to return to his cheeks, willing him make some joke about the makeup that the mortician applies. “You kidding me with this stuff?!” I thought, if I just touch the wood of the casket, maybe God will bring him back. What if that happened? How amazing would that be? Then everyone would believe in God. Wouldn’t that be in God’s best interest? That’s foolish. Who thinks like that. I reached out my hand and brushed my finger against the corner of his casket and looked at his closed eyes. Nothing happened. “What a great guy. Everybody loved him.”
I believe this stuff. I believe that there are things I cannot control and cannot explain. I believe that bad things happen to good people and vice versa. I believe that miracles happen. I believe that death is inevitable and also isn’t the end; that the screen doesn’t just go black, that there’s something more. I think about leaving: sometimes you want to be the first to leave, because being the last sucks. You stay put while your friends, one by one, head out on a new adventure, while you’re left and the place that you once loved has grown stale without the people who made it alive for you. When you’re the first to leave, you hold the place you’ve left in your heart—romanticizing the positives and downplaying the negatives.
Everyone keeps on going. Your whole life prepares you to die. You graduate high school; somehow the school keeps going. You graduate college; they keep going. You leave your job; they keep going. You leave the state; it’s still there. I wonder if dying is like peekaboo with kids—when they close their eyes and believe that the whole world closes its eyes. Somehow the world keeps going.