“Such a shitty town, but so many good people.” That’s what an old pal of mine said to me yesterday during the wake of my best friend’s dad.
She said it as basically everyone we’d ever known, everyone we’d grown up with, the fabric of that town, filed in to pay their respects, to get one last look at John, a guy that, even if you didn’t know him well, you knew him to be good. Those who knew his flaws also knew him to be good and they were the ones crying the most.
I wasn’t as close to him as a lot of the people there, but I needed to write this as a reminder for the family that I’m close to and for my friend, so they can remember how large and important their father was. He was the type of person that holds small towns together. He was the living embodiment of glue.
He did so much more than sell pizza – a lot of times he gave it away. If he liked you, or if it was for a good cause, you weren’t paying. I doubt he ever comprehended how many people would walk in that day, people he may not have seen in years. Even people that had burned bridges with him were there because they appreciated what he stood for.
He was young, but it would have been equally tragic if he weren’t. He had a big heart, big enough to hold an entire community within it. When his heart gave out, that entire community showed up: high school and middle school teachers, police officers, coaches, consumers, families, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, cousins, nieces, nephews, people of every hue, young and old. Hundreds. It was a spectacle.
He’s not going away. He is a community, so he will continue.
Because of him, I saw a lot of people I love yesterday. I haven’t had the time to tell them that lately, or to keep in touch with them, but I saw them all yesterday. They understood the weight of the moment. They saw that so much had changed – perhaps they hadn’t talked to John’s family since high school – but they also saw that things needed to stay the same, that the time to be together had come, even if it was too late.
I last saw him over winter break. Our last conversation was about, what else, NBA basketball. He stuck up for his Milwaukee Bucks and I puffed out my chest for my Boston Celtics. On the day he died, I randomly thought of him hours before a friend called me with the news because the Bucks beat the Celtics by three points that night. If only that man born in Budapest with the 100 percent Greek family could have stayed alive to see Giannis Antetokounmpo, the “Greek Freak,” lead his beloved Bucks back to relevancy.
The truth is, he had a lot to live for. I like to think that if he’d been aware of how people would react to his death, he would’ve done all he could to stop it. But there is no use speculating on the private life of a public man. It is sufficient to say that he was a good dude who made a lot of people happy.
For the younger people, my best friend and our peers, this looked different to us than it does to people his age. For adults, his death was a stark reminder of their own mortality. But for us, it’s more of a warning that this can happen to anyone; a homeless person, a king or an honorable, salt of the earth, pillar of society, American-Dream-chasing army veteran. It could be our parents, our friends’ parents, or us.
I was going to say that small towns aren’t equipped to handle this sort of tragedy, but that’s a lie. It’s as if we were prepared. I saw people from different towns, schools and places in life unite into a depressed, resilient village yesterday. What if we united when things weren’t so bad? What if it was like this then? That will never be the case. But, my so-called shitty town showed why it was truly great.
I just want my friend to know that her dad was a friend to all of us. He was a father to you and a father figure to others. He was a comedian, he was a rapper, he was a cook, he was a businessperson, he was a man of dignity.
As the weeks and the years drift by, and we begin to think less pointedly and less often about people like your father, it’s okay for you not to forget. In a memory of him is a memory of everything. The family parties, the days by the pool, the arguments, the dancing, the “good nights” come back and so does the full power of childhood. You’re an adult now, but there’s nothing wrong or naïve about nostalgia. I broke and I cried looking at the photo collage of him smiling and holding you, your sister and your brother.
I was afraid of your father for the first year I knew him – about 10 years ago, when I was in seventh grade – until I realized that he was merely a gruff teddy bear. Our sophomore year of high school, he pulled me aside before we left to go somewhere to tell me that I am a good friend to you, and he wishes you had more friends like me. I told him it’s easy to be a good friend to good people and he smiled a proud smile.
Too many people have too many memories like that of him for him to be gone. That guy is like super glue, because we’re never coming undone. People like him keep neighborhoods intact. People like him never die. People like him inspire others to mean that much to an area.
Tri-town loves you and your family like he has always loved you.
Sten Spinella is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.