We kneel around Kyle’s bed as his wife Mary holds him. His breathing heavy, but his eyes closed. We have all known each other since grade school. There’s an uneasy silence, which breaks as I speak to Mary.
“In junior high I didn’t know where I fit in. I had been friends with Kyle, and knew Derek pretty well, but I didn’t really know the other guys. Kyle, being the welcoming person he was, invited me to hang out, and that’s how I ended up making my best friends to this day.”
And they are my best friends. Ben, whip-smart and reserved, though he can sling a sharp barb when provoked. Tim, easygoing as they come, with a big heart he makes no attempt to hide. Derek, our silent giant you can always count on.
And then there’s Kyle, the skinny, freckled, six-foot redhead with a punk rock heart. In most of our group photos he is wearing his black Operation Ivy or his red Rancid shirt. We came of age in the mid-’90s, so Rancid was one of the bands we bonded over. …And Out Come the Wolves was ingrained in our subconscious, with “Time Bomb” part of the soundtrack to our youth.
Ben tells another story about Kyle, and it brings a smile back to Mary’s tear-ridden face.
Then Kyle stops breathing.
In early 2014, doctors discovered a rare malignant tumor called a synovial sarcoma on Kyle’s lung. The guys and I sent him a chemo care package of music, TV shows, and comedy albums. By the following March, after having his left lung removed, he was in remission and we all breathed a sigh of relief.
Unfortunately the cancer came back, and the fight continued. Through it all, he completed grad school at Harvard, met and married Mary, and moved back to the west coast. He tried every treatment, any trial he was accepted into, but there’s only so much a body can take, and Kyle’s finally gave out.
One of his last requests was to have a “rager” for his and Mary’s anniversary, whether he was there for it or not. So the three weeks following his passing are spent preparing for the party. We buy beer by the crate, vodka, gin, and the coup de grâce, bottles of Kyle and Mary’s favorite brand of whiskey, Basil Hayden’s. We have no plans to end this party sober.
Saturday, July 15th, 2017. The morning starts on the Manhattan Beach strand, where more than 100 people are gathered. In honor of Kyle’s love of surfing, a paddle-out has been planned. Tim warmly welcomes everyone before passing the microphone to me.
“The summer after our freshman year of college, Derek, Ben, Kyle, and I went to a punk show at the Troubadour. We headed upstairs for the opening band, and Kyle noticed how all the young “punk” fans downstairs were just standing around, barely moving. So kind, gentle Kyle says, ‘We need to start a mosh pit.’ It began with the four of us going in a rough but friendly circle that certainly would have looked scary to an outsider. Most of the kids around us backed away, but slowly a few joined in when they realized we weren’t planning on hurting anyone. That lasted until a tall, tough girl joined the fray, and she had no qualms about jabbing an elbow into my back or whacking one of us across the face. The pit got serious then, and left us all bruised, sweaty and laughing.”
Twenty of us paddle out into the Pacific, holding flowers in our teeth as we fight through the waves. Mary carries a small handful of Kyle’s ashes in a ziplock bag. After we form a circle past the breaks, more stories are shared about our late friend.
Concentrating on balancing on the board and keeping the circle together distracts me from my emotions until Mary enters the center. Sobbing and whispering to her lost love, she spreads his ashes in the water, as another mourner flips Kyle’s board over, letting it float by his remains. A lifeguard boat is supposed to speed by, sending jets of water out as is the tradition, but we learn they’ve been called away, so we take it upon ourselves to splash water everywhere and holler as loudly as possible, so the beach and heavens can hear us. It’s mildly cathartic, but I still feel a weight as I watch the ashes mix with flower petals on the ocean’s surface. With a return to silence, the ceremony ends, and we turn our boards around and ride the waves in.
We arrive at the Memorial/Anniversary party in the afternoon. I chat with Kyle’s college friends, who I’ve grown to know over the years that he fought his cancer. A couple high school alumni arrive and I catch up with them, though it’s hard to find joy in any of these conversations. After a point, the small talk becomes uncomfortable and I excuse myself.
I eat a burger, treat myself to an ice cream sundae, and refill my cocktail before wandering inside. There are pictures of Kyle and our gang pinned along the dining room wall. My brain won’t accept that there will be no more photos like these.
David, the last member of our close group who had flown in the day before, grabs my attention as I talk with an old classmate. I follow him downstairs, where Derek, Tim, and Ben are already waiting. Mary enters and closes the door.
“This is a letter Kyle wrote to all of you the last time he was in the hospital,” Mary says. “You should know that you guys were the first people he wrote to. You were truly his brothers and he loved you. I don’t know if you want one person to read it, or to pass it around.”
David, the curious scientist, a goofball whose zany ideas and idioms always make me laugh, has a red face and wet eyes. His voice breaking, he mumbles, “I’d like it to be passed around.” It is devastating seeing the most upbeat of our gang breaking down in front of us.
Mary hands the letter to Tim and leaves. We pass it around in silence, not making eye contact. As Tim finishes reading and passes the note on, he nods, and though he doesn’t smile, something about his posture changes that makes me think whatever he read has brought him some comfort. When it finally reaches me, I see that the note is an homage to our group’s friendship, thanks for two decades of being inseparable, and in the middle, he’s thrown in a light dig at me over a girl we fought over in high school. I’m surprised to find myself smiling; even while writing his last goodbye to his best friends, his sense of humor remained intact. Classic Kyle.
After everyone reads the letter, someone asks,”Time for a shot?” No one argues. I gather my brothers around, our five heads together, arms around each other’s shoulders.
“We were lucky to have him. And I’m lucky to have you guys. I love you, and I know we’ll keep his memory alive,” I say. It’s excruciatingly cheesy, but also the goddamn truth.
We march to the bar in single file, calling over Mary and all of Kyle’s other friends. The bartender pours shots of Basil Hayden’s for all of us, and in a multi-layered circle, we raise our shots and the call goes out, “For Kyyyyle!”
The whiskey goes down smoothly, and as if fate was the DJ, Rancid’s “Time Bomb” bursts from the speakers like joyful noise:
Living and dying and the stories that are true
Secret to a good life is knowing when you’re through
Derek, Ben, Tim, David, and I jump like young hooligans, elbows out as we plow into each other with careless abandon. Kyle’s college friends join in. It has been a ruthless summer and we have plenty of pent up aggression towards the cosmos, but there is no anger in the air. We’re engaging in one of punk’s most sacred rituals out of pure love for our fallen comrade.
“Ruby Soho” plays next, followed by Op Ivy’s “Unity”. United we are, singing along as the bouncing and shoving continues until our bodies hit their limit. As I catch my breath, I see exhausted smiles crossing everyone’s faces. We have moshed through the invisible wall between the world of pained mourning and world of exuberant honoring. It is okay to be goofy again. To be stupid again. To be young.
Moshing in his memory.
Kyle had been the first close friend I ever lost. I had been to funerals for older relatives, ones I loved dearly, but nothing had crushed me inside like losing Kyle. There was no sense or fairness to it; watching your vibrant friend grow paler and weaker. Hearing his voice become a murmured whisper when he’s conscious enough to speak to you. For three years we held out hope for a miracle cure, something that would keep our friend with us, but part of me knew it was a pipe dream.
Watching Kyle slip away put me through the emotional ringer, and I had yet to find a silver lining in all the sadness. Until now. As my forearm clashes with Derek’s, and my torso collides with David’s, I feel unbelievably alive, and more grateful for these guys than ever before. We had crossed over the harshest of life’s thresholds together, and now we would carry on Kyle’s memory together.
Every night we spend pounding back shots of good whiskey and rocking out to punk rock, we will do so knowing that if Kyle was still here, he would be right in the pit with us.