I found out early this morning and I’ve barely been able to move since.
First through gchat windows, then text messages, then Facebook posts, I slowly got confirmation that what I’d been told was true: Kevin Labayen passed away last night.
The shock and sadness that immediately washed over me were overwhelming. I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my life to know very few people who have passed away, and so I still consider myself to be incredibly ill-equipped to deal with such a situation’s realities when it does happen.
As I read Facebook post after Facebook post that each contained some combination of love, admiration, sadness, bewilderment, pain, and countless other emotions, I began to think about myself and my relationship to Kevin. “All these people are expressing their feelings about this man, about their relationship to him, about his life. What about my feelings? What was our relationship?”
At first I thought it was so fucking selfish. I couldn’t stand to think about it anymore so I closed my laptop and tried to put it out of my mind. Here this person I knew, who had a life and a family and thoughts and dreams and emotions of his own had died and all I could think about was myself? I felt disgusting. So I wanted to keep those thoughts where they belonged, in my head. I wanted to shove my emotions back down below the surface, where they couldn’t breathe.
In my experience, this is how I’ve dealt with the death of non-family members. When my friend Carol passed away nearly seven years ago, I stoically called my parents and informed them that I’d need a flight home so I could attend the funeral. No feelings. No emotions. The actual funeral was the same. I stood there listening to my friends and Carol’s family give impassioned speeches about their feelings, about their relationship to Carol, and they were overrun with emotions. So many people cried. I didn’t.
I of course experienced waves of emotion in the days, weeks, months, and years after Carol was killed, but I kept them to myself. It took me more than five years to finally tell anyone other than myself my thoughts about Carol, about our relationship, about how I felt about the way she was taken from us.
When my friend from college, Drew, passed away in 2011, I did the same thing. I went to his funeral, didn’t speak to anyone, and haven’t said anything to anyone about my feelings, my relationship with Drew, or my thoughts in how he died since.
But in re-reading the Facebook posts on Kevin’s wall a little while ago, I realized that I don’t have to be one of those people who doesn’t share his feelings, who shoves the emotion back down below the surface, where it can’t breathe. I can be one of those people who tells others how I feel, and it won’t change the fact that he’s gone. Keeping it to myself doesn’t do anyone any good, and it probably does me harm. So I’m telling you, whoever you are.
Kevin Labayen was my high school football teammate and my brother for four years, and I probably saw him no more than 10 times in the 8-plus years since we graduated.
The last time I saw him was Thanksgiving morning. We had both - independent of each other - just gone done playing football for the first time in a while, and the glow on each of our faces at doing something we loved and that was part of our daily lives for so long was so, so bright. We stood outside and talked for about 10 minutes, first about the games we’d played that day, and then about the ones we’d played all those years prior, and about the stupid things we did and said in practice and on the interminable bus rides to away games.
More often than not during our senior year, I’d find myself sitting in the seat across from, or in front of, or behind Labayen on the bus. It just worked out that way, I guess, but as two of the less-serious people on the team, it made a perfect kind of sense. We’d talk and laugh and crack jokes and rap along to the music in our headphones and get told by the more serious people on the bus to shut the hell up. It was the kind of shit that high school football players who never played after high school always tell you meant more to them than the actual games, and it did. Those practices and those bus rides are things I’ll never forget, even while I don’t remember the exact final score of the game against Toms River North.
His game that Thursday morning was tackle while mine was “rough touch,” so Kevin, as he did in high school when I’d avoid getting hit in practice by stepping out of bounds after a catch, called me a fucking pussy. I loved it. That shit took me way back. It was just like old times.
We promised to meet up soon, but of course we never did. We lived in different cities, had different lives, and hung with different groups of friends. The bond we shared as teammates was forever, but sometimes forever doesn’t last all that long.
So I’ll miss you Kevin Labayen, probably more than I have any right to. Please save me a seat on the bus.