I feel guilty grieving.
Granted, I feel guilty about most things. It’s just who I am. I never want to inconvenience someone or claim what isn’t mine. And a lot of the time, I feel like grief belongs to those closest to the deceased.
And I’ve always hated that word—deceased. It reduces the whole person to a state. An undoable state. Alive is permanently replaced by that. Like death showed up to rumble with life and won. Life defeated. Person deceased. End of story.
It’s why I… prefer? Is it weird to have a preference in this situation? I guess I opt to say they passed away. It’s an action, like countless others they took over the course of their lifetime. It’s part of the story. It doesn’t replace it.
My friend Zach passed away—and it fucking sucks. It sucks because Zach was one of the really, really good ones. He was so damn funny. He was kind. And smart. And one of the most genuine people I’ve ever known.
I met Zach during my short stint in local TV. He worked for the other station in town, so we often ended up at the same high school sporting events. Two peas at the bottom of the totem pole, relying on sarcasm and a lifetime of patience to survive everything from single-digit basketball scores to never-ending rain delays.
Once we’d left our respective posts, it would’ve been easy (and probably expected) to fall out of touch, but that wasn’t Zach. He had a way of just dropping by to say one thing or another. Never life-changing, but always welcome—often in the form of a Twitter reply.
But I don’t need to look back on our social media interactions to remember him or what made our friendship worthwhile. Because for the past nine years he’s popped into my brain on a regular basis.
For starters, anytime Whitney Houston comes on (which is often, considering she’s my go-to karaoke songstress), I think of Zach. Hours after the news of her death, he and I ran into each other at O’Connor’s Pub in Omaha, and mourned together as one of her hits played over TouchTunes. His sadness may have been a bit more tongue-in-cheek than mine, but he therapeutically belted alongside me all the same.
I also think of him with every Starbucks order I place (again, it happens a lot), because Zach made a hobby of telling the barista his name was Bode—of Olympic skiing fame—just to see how they’d spell it. Every brutal attempt was photographed and texted my way.
I tried to return the favor with the many renditions of “Alli” I’d receive, but the fun was in Zach’s devotion to a name that wasn’t even his. And his feigned outrage at the lack of respect for the celebrated athlete he was trying to emulate. Because truly, nobody knew sports or fanned harder than Zach.
Being a Bears supporter in Omaha, I had approximately one person who understood the emotions that went into the beginning, middle and end of every season—my dad. But even during the faint glimmers of hope that things might turn around, he was never too optimistic.
Enter Zach, the Chicagoan by birth, who also never got his hopes up but managed to talk about it in a way that made you wonder if maybe this time was different! That is, until it was still very much the same.
Truth be told, I don’t think I could’ve found a better screenshot to represent our friendship, especially that text the weekend of my wedding.
He and Molly were invited, but he’d called me a few weeks earlier to let me know he wasn’t feeling great and the travel probably wouldn’t help. It was a call he didn’t have to make—RSVPing ‘no’ would’ve been more than okay!—but he did.
Then he definitely didn’t have to text, but he did.
And he didn’t have to FaceTime me two weeks ago, just to catch up and let me know how he was doing, but he did.
That conversation meant a lot at the time, but it’s beyond words now.
And even when I consider everything listed above, there’s still that guilt.
He had a wife. And his parents. His siblings. They were with Zach through it all. They’ve known him his whole life. They spent time with him much more recently than I did. They deserve the grief. They deserve to cry and get mad at cancer and ask people to become a donor in honor of Zach.
I’m 2,000 miles away. I haven’t seen Zach is nearly two years. Our friendship began in the lobby of Nebraska’s practice facility, waiting silently for coach and athlete interviews to begin.
But I’m really sad. I’m sad the world lost Zach when it really needs more of him. I’m sad I won’t get anymore texts about Boddie or the Bears. I’m sad I can’t schedule a dinner with him the next time I visit Chicago. I’m sad he can’t visit me and Drew in Seattle, because he’s definitely the friend who would. Probably for a Mariners game. Or whatever our NHL team turns out to be.
I’m really sad, but I’m also really grateful. I’m grateful we had the kind of friendship that makes this hurt so bad. That’s how I know it was a good one.
And why I’m giving myself permission to feel a little less guilty.
And please consider registering as a stem cell donor in his memory.