It was finals week. Sometime in the middle of the night I stepped out of the classroom where I was studying and into the hallway to clear my head. In my haze of frustration I heard the voice of my fraternity brother who always seemed to be around when I was struggling.
“What’s wrong, DeMar?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I replied, head down and shoulders slumped.
“I know what’s wrong,” he claimed. I glanced up at him.
“You feel like you aren’t good enough for any of this,” he said, “Like everyone is against you. Like tomorrow’s test is going to be the one that finally exposes you to the world as a great big fraud.”
Geez, I thought, it’s as if he is reading my mind.
“How did you know that?” I asked.
“Because we all feel that way,” he replied.
I doubt Joel Burnette thought he was going to change my life that night, but from that moment on, I assumed if I was scared then others must be scared and I would have an advantage if I acted with courage instead of fear. Twenty years later I’d say that mindset has served me pretty well.
Joel was a very good brother to me. Right now I’m wondering if I could have been a better brother to him.
When I received word on Wednesday that Joel was dead I was more sad than surprised. His adult life had been cruel and unfair. Like many of his other college friends, I hadn’t seen him in about a decade and the communication I had with him was in odd spurts on Facebook. Though he would play off his bizarre posts as a big joke, I couldn’t help but feel that something was wrong.
In 2011, I reached out to people I had hoped were still in touch with him, trying to get a phone number or something. My effort was half-hearted, as was almost everything in my previous adult life that didn’t involve a baseball, and after two dead-ends I stopped trying. We hadn’t spoken in 10 years and I was probably being delusional to think I could say anything at that point that would make a difference.
It’s just that now I’ll never know.
I don’t want to sound like a phony. I’ve thought of Joel often over the years but he hasn’t really been a part of my life since college and I’m not going to pretend I’m in pieces right now. He was, however, one of my closest friends during an important time in my life and I’m sad that I won’t ever see him again. I’m angry that his mind and body betrayed him and I’m sorry that I didn’t try harder for him. I can’t help but think he would have tried harder for me.
The only positive thing about us being out of touch for this awful period in his life is that I get to remember him as the wonderful human being the world should have been able to enjoy for decades more.
We met as pledges of Delta Tau Delta Fraternity at the University of Missouri in August of 1991. Me from St. Louis, him from Kansas City. I was an overweight, sarcastic mess who always looked like I had just rolled out of bed. He was a scrawny, blue-eyed, clean-cut kid with a great big smile that made him look like he was 12 years old. We became friends immediately.
Everybody loved Joel. He was considerate of the people around him, but loved a good prank. He didn’t mind pushing your buttons, but wouldn’t let you leave the room angry. If you were down, Joel was usually there to pick you up. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was a bit jealous of how people adored him, but I couldn’t have resented him for it if I tried. He wouldn’t let me.
Through the years we could be found packed into a tiny room full of Delts and Delta Gamma girls watching 90210, picking water fights in the bathrooms, watching Raising Arizona for the millionth time or raising hell in the house or downtown. In 1995 he made his only trip to my house in St. Louis before we saw U2 perform at Busch Stadium, still the best concert I ever attended.
Most of the time we could be found somewhere lost in conversation. What Joel and I had more in common than anything was introspection. We were way too aware of who we were and what we imagined our roles would be in this world. He loved to play devil’s advocate and I never met an argument I didn’t enjoy.
I saw him for the last time around the turn of the millennium on a trip to Kansas City. Life had already handed him a few lemons and he was a more cynical person for it. His luster had dulled a bit, but he was still the brother I knew and loved. Now more than ever I’m thankful I took that trip.
So this is goodbye. It’s not fair, but Joel would have been the first person to remind me that life isn’t fair so no sense dwelling on that. I won’t stay sad, because he wouldn’t let that happen either. Others will find comfort thinking of him at peace now. I’ll think of him as being free from all that went wrong to enjoy what was once very right. To be happy. To be fun.
To be Joel.