While I was in college, I joined a fraternity. A lot of people who have never been in a fraternity or sorority wonder what possibly could have possessed me to do such a thing. In fact, I surprised myself the day I seriously began considering it. My experience of this consideration happened because two members lived across the hall from me my freshman year, I’d come to know a few others through my involvement with the Athletic Band and a few others through campus ministries. Essentially, I started relationships with a lot of the guys before I pledged, and as a result going through the process became a real possibility after a while. I got to know them first, and wound up pledging because of that.
That isn’t the full explanation, but it chiefly boils down to relationships that I had beforehand. That still isn’t enough for some, but I can't really call that my problem. Nevertheless, I'll tell you this story.
I pledged with three other guys. Ian was my best friend in college, with a flamboyant personality and usually a Hawaiian shirt to match. Mike was a Cadillac enthusiast with a slight Southern twang. And then there was Darren.
I remember the first time I met him at one of the pre-pledging mixers. He was a stocky guy, still sporting his high school letter jacket and a pocked complexion beneath large-framed glasses. It was easy for this band geek to spot a fellow band geek, and I quickly ascertained that that letter had been earned by playing a horn rather than a sport. In fact, mingling with some of the frat’s other musicians is how he’d ended up at this event to begin with. I forget what we talked about that night, but I do remember that he was in a jovial mood, which was something that defined who he was. The entire time that I knew him, there was a mock punch to the shoulder here, a quick joke there, and always said with a toothy smile and a coy deference afterwards.
That smile, man. There was nothing coy about that smile. It was out there. It sprang from somewhere deep inside him for you to see. Above all else, I saw from the get-go that Darren wanted to be your friend. There wouldn’t be anything fake about this friendship, either. He was friendly to give, not friendly to get. Know what I mean?
So anyway, we all pledged together. Say what you want about what you think you know about fraternity pledging activities, but it brought these four seemingly odd-fitting weirdos together…four autonomous individuals learning to work as one. That was the point, and we caught on. Ian and I had known each other pretty well already; had decided to watch each others’ backs way in advance. But we both slowly came to bond with these other two and by the end of two weeks’ worth of memorization, calisthenics, rituals, fatigue, and even some tears, we became Aps. We were certainly proud of our accomplishment, but we were more proud of how close we’d become.
For the rest of our college careers, Ian, Darren, and I in particular always celebrated this closeness. We set up movie nights or nights out and around. We supported Darren after his diagnosis of diabetes. I prayed with Darren one night for another brother critically ill in the hospital. We took our bonds seriously…the relationships we’d forged before and during pledging only becoming stronger as the years went on.
Near the tail end of my senior year, the frat organized a retreat to an area campground. For one reason or another, Ian couldn’t make it, and Darren originally wasn’t going to go until I talked him into it. I offered to drive us out to the meeting spot. There was something about that car ride that stuck with me, and for this reason: as we rode along, I noticed after a while that whenever we passed a cemetery, he’d make the traditional Catholic gesture of crossing himself.
I could tell that he wasn’t meaning to draw attention to this, but after the first few times he’d piqued my curiosity. So finally, I asked, “What’s that for?”
“Oh, a while back my uncle died. We were pretty close, so I like to remember him by saying a prayer whenever I pass a cemetery.”
That was it. He didn’t embellish that much and I didn’t push. Still, for the rest of the trip—both there and back—it never failed. See a cemetery, silent prayer. There’s something about ritual that helps us mark relationships: we designate times and genuflect in the appropriate moments and appropriate ways to remember what and whom we care about the most. I’d learned something new about Darren that day; about his family and his faith. One simple, even routine, motion had become for him an important act of memoriam.
Darren was a groomsman at my wedding. By this time, he’d taken great steps to control his diabetes and had demonstrated a robust commitment to keeping it in check with his diet and exercise routines. Of course, it didn’t stop him from the odd indulgence: I clearly remember him chowing down on McDonald’s the morning of the ceremony. For some reason, no one thought hard or long enough about it to chastise or rib him about it. It was a warm sunny weekend during which he’d helped mastermind the generous amount of silly string covering my car.
Fall came, and the leaves turned their glorious array of reds, yellows, and browns. During one late fall evening, Ian called, a somber tinge to his voice.
“Are you sitting down?”
At this point, I’m thinking it’ll be an account of his latest spat with his girlfriend. The two had been on quite a rollercoaster the past few months, so I’m waiting for the “he said, she said” to hit. Maybe I’d already begun forming some kind of helpful relationship advice.
“Okay. There were a series of tornados that passed through northwest Ohio today. They’ve been assessing damage and casualties and apparently there was only one death in Seneca County.
“It was Darren.”
I sat on the steps of the apartment building, trying to keep the phone from falling away limply from my ear. Ian and I spoke for a few more minutes, but I couldn’t tell you anything that we talked about. It was probably something about arrangements, but I don’t know. I once read something about how, when the brain feels threatened or wants to mask pain, it releases endorphins as a defense mechanism. Whether it was this or the near-blinding amount of confusion and disbelief that almost immediately began churning within me, the rest of that conversation is lost to the ages.
Coffeewife reacted much more suddenly, beginning to sob as the news touched her ears. Part of me was actually jealous of her, wishing that I’d reacted like that in order to feel something, but there was nothing for me but more endorphins, more churning, more disbelief. Only a few months ago had he stood up in a tuxedo in support, after wolfing down a couple cheeseburgers and before hosing down my car in silly-string. Him and his leaner, healthier frame thanks to his new diet. He who grinned out of someplace in the center of his being. There was no way that a guy like that was gone already.
One of my mentors would later comment, "People your age aren't supposed to die." Wasn't that the truth. Regardless, in the midst of my numbness and churning, we headed back to Ohio for the funeral.
The priest was obnoxious, loudly cracking jokes with family members during the entire calling hours through this weird nasally voice. Only a year prior had I learned about pastoral care, and this guy had obviously skipped the whole “ministry of presence” thing, let alone any personal sense of discretion. I greeted Darren’s parents, who had remembered me from something or other, and then approached warily. I’m actually surprised that Coffeewife still has use of her right hand, as I’m certain that I’d cut off the flow of blood. I’d gripped it more and more tightly through the line in anticipation, wondering how I’d react, wondering if I’d react.
Seeing him was the worst part. I don’t know what your opinion is about open caskets and how necessary they are to the grief process, but in this instance it didn’t do him any favors. They’d been extra generous with the base, turning him almost white in the process; a ghost of who he’d been, with a hint of rouge and lipstick in an ironic attempt to make him look like himself. I could spot places where they’d had no choice but to pack it on, and looking back I have to wonder whether it would have been worse to see him like that or not see him at all.
Either way, finally seeing him caused the numbness to evaporate and I completely let go. It was a little embarrassing, really. But after days of wondering why I hadn’t yet felt the way I knew I wanted to feel, my emotions kicked on and I wasn’t about to stop them. At 23 years old, he my groomsman and I his pallbearer. Nothing about this—his age, the oblivious priest, the horrible makeup—was fair. I knew that God knew it, but I didn’t know how to tell Him.
There was a mist in the air by the time we’d made it to the cemetery. What seemed like a half-acre of college friends huddled close in the mid-November cold, listening to more nasally words from the priest, now in his serious mock-pious mode. Too little, too late, buddy. He finally said his benediction and we were allowed to disperse, even though nobody really did. We craved the company in this place that we’d visited far too soon. Finally, as if on instinct, a group of his metaphysical brothers stood shoulder to shoulder, looking each other in the eyes as we said words that had become second-nature to us:
Let us drink, Aptonaltons, this toast
May it ever be our creed of fraternity.
That we live out our lives with the fullness and zest
That can come to us only by giving our best.
To our country, our school, and to all whom we meet,
Laughing with strength in the face of defeat.
Let us strive to be always leaders of men
Champions of right and of good to the end.
Let us love with a love neither false nor yet blind
With every respect for all womankind.
And last, as we drink let us ‘ere keep in mind
To be friend and brother to all mankind.
Returning the wrongs that were done us with good
Furthering always man’s brotherhood.
This be our toast, and by it let us live
That to God and to man our best we may give.
There was no moment when the meaning of those words had been rendered any clearer for that circle of young men, their arms wrapped around one another in grief. If the reader is still cynical and judgmental about what fraternities are about, I can only point to what is already written here, because I don't know what else might convince you.
The toast seemed to be what people were really waiting for, as it was only at that point that they began to make plans for the rest of the day. Some opted for an early meal and a drowning of sorrows in a local pub. Others had to get back quickly to jobs, families, schools, or whatever else. Again, I actually can’t remember what I did, but it involved a quick goodbye to Ian, so we were probably on the road pretty soon after.
Nowadays when I pass a cemetery, I think back to my trip with Darren to the retreat and his explanation of his prayer. I don’t make any movement of my own as I pass, but I do often think about him. I think about the gesture that he would have made, and the faith and character behind it all. Somehow, I think that’s enough.