I’ve been taking a lot of time to write this post because I’ve never known how to go about it. It was two years ago, but it still feels so raw, it still hurts just as much every day.
At the boathouse today I saw one of the old doubles lined up below the other shells. It’s an old boat, and I remember the way the riggers and track would squeak as we’d go up to the catch. I hadn’t seen it at the boathouse before today, and as I traced my fingers along the name Peanut on its bow so many memories came back to me.
Two years ago, a local coach called me up and asked if I’d like to help coach a special case. He referred to it that way, but didn’t really explain what he meant. Two days later I met him early at the boat yard to prepare. There he finally explained that this kid had leukemia, that he was finally doing better and that he had been asking his mom to let him try rowing. Since he was so tiny from the treatments, we decided to teach him to cox.
I never really remember much about the first time I met Chris and his mother. In fact, I actually remember being annoyed with his mother because of the amount of precautions she wanted to take. At the time, I guess I didn’t understand how serious his disease actually was.
For about a month I ended up meeting Chris early at the boatyard; we were both always early to practice and I ended up teaching him to rig the boats, to fix the wiring. He was hungry to learn everything about the sport, especially to actually go out and row. I don’t even remember when I started hanging out with him outside of crew, I think it started when I would drive him home from practices. His mother, in her lovely British accent, would ask if I’d like to stay for dinner. I got to know Chris’s family: his father, Rory, his mother, Lily, and his brother John.
On day in late June, Chris and I were both an hour early. I’d taken him to see a movie before practice and ended up at the boatyard before even the earliest rowers got there. He nodded towards Peanut, smiling slyly while he asked “ready to teach me?” I hesitated, but it’s hard to talk me out of rowing, especially on a such a beautiful day. I taught him the basics of sculling, right hand over the left, body slow and balanced. We were halfway down the river when he started laughing. “I should probably tell you, I can’t swim.”
It was two weeks later when his mother called me. Chris had relapsed and was at a cancer center in a local hospital. I left practice early to get there before visiting hours ended, running into his hospital in spandex shorts and a tank top. It became a daily routine, finding every moment of free time to visit him at the hospital. I began to stay after visiting hours ended, began meeting the other kids on the weekends, started sneaking cookies and candy to Chris whenever I could. One of my favorite memories of those days was how Chris, having charmed all of the nurses, would tell them that he needed a second bowl of ice cream for “his girl”. Of course they would bring it to him, and of course he would eat both bowls.
My days ended up following the pattern of hospital, practice, home for a bit, second practice, and then back to the hospital. I could see Chris getting weaker, and I started spending my nights at the hospital with him when his parents couldn’t. And when they spent the night at the hospital, I stayed at their house to watch John.
The last time that I spent with Chris in the hospital, I curled up on his bed to watch a movie. I could tell he was crying because his fingers were shaking against mine. All at once he was telling me that he didn’t want to die, that he wasn’t ready. My Chris, my brave Chris who had been fearless out on the water. All I could do was cry with him, I couldn’t comfort him. He told me that he was mostly scared to die because he had never been in love, and then kept repeating “I’m not ready…” We fell asleep like that, with my hand in his. I woke early to leave to practice, with him still asleep against the pillows. It was the last time I’d see him alive.
I knew it was coming that day at practice. I held my phone on my lap in the boat, felt it vibrating as we were heading back to dock. I jumped out of the boat at the dock, the girls all knowing that I had to go. I sped through traffic, drove into the city to the hospital that had become my second home. I found his mother and father crying in the hallway, found myself in their arms, found myself holding John as he sobbed into my shoulder. It doesn’t help that John, the sweet boy who I’d spent nights playing Scrabble with, committed suicide late in August. It was too much to bear for him, and for awhile it was too much for me. Nobody ever said it would be that hard.
It’s still not easy. I haven’t been out in the Peanut since that day with Chris, and just tracing the name brought me close to tears. And it’s not just in seeing the boat; I can’t see Ben and Jerry’s ice cream without thinking of him spooning it in his mouth. And every time I think of that last night, I think about how God damn lucky I am to have loved, even if they haven’t worked out so well.
I miss him, especially right now.