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First Person: Being here / One young man's decision to die, and the life it helped create

Saturday, January 11, 2003

By Ted Anthony

We were in his basement -- playing table tennis, I believe. It must have been the summer of 1984, after my sophomore year and his freshman year at Hampton High School. My friend Pat was telling me about what he wanted to do when he grew up. I remember the basement, the cool dimness that dried our still-odorless adolescent sweat from driveway one-on-one. I remember my vague crush on his sister, who was a year older than me and so luminous and mature. I remember the ping-pong paddle's rubber against my hand, and the rustle of the black Ocean Pacific corduroy shorts I was wearing.

   Ted Anthony is a journalist based in Beijing, China (tedbeijing@hotmail.com). 

What bothers me is the one thing I cannot remember: I never committed to memory exactly what he said, what he wanted to grow up to be. So many years later, I wish I'd listened.

Because Pat never grew up. Fifteen years ago yesterday -- on Jan. 10, 1988, a gray, frigid Sunday morning -- he opened a window in a study lounge on the fifth floor of Mifflin Hall on the Penn State campus, climbed out and jumped. And there, on the hard ice of a Centre County winter, my friend's life stopped.

He was 18, about to start his first semester at University Park; I was 19, a Penn State student, too. I was supposed to have lunch with him the following day. I was in a building a few blocks away when someone said, "Some guy jumped out of Mifflin Hall." I ran there and found only ice and a little trace of blood. My girlfriend at the time, who lived in the dormitory next door, saw him wheeled away on a stretcher; she told me this hours afterward, when I sought comfort with her. She was one of the last to see him alive, and she had no idea who he was.

Over the years, I have claimed this list of facts as my own, made them part of the vital statistics of my soul.

When people ask, I recite them as liturgy, sometimes without even thinking about their meaning. I have accepted that a life deliberately halted itself that day, that my first up-close experience with mortality changed me in ways I still cannot quantify. In 1997, finally, I passed the anniversary unnoticed. When I realized it a few days later, I was appalled.

But what I am still incapable of processing, even today, is the utter ruthlessness of continuity, the notion that one person can simply end and the world continues to unfold.

There is nothing unique about this; anyone who has tasted death feels the same way. Yet something about the time in my life when he died, and all the things he was about to experience but didn't, makes it a notion I cannot shake.

He loved basketball deeply and followed it rabidly, but the names Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson would mean nothing to him. He does not know that the Stop-N-Go on Route 8 is now a Boston Market, that the Gibsonia McDonald's where we convened after dances and basketball games is no more. The date Sept. 11 would hold no significance to him. He does not come up in a Google search. He never had an e-mail address.

I find, of late, that I question the accuracy of my memories. They seem imprisoned in the era when they were made, like Instamatic photos with curved borders and that 1980s finishing that feels like the smooth-sticky seat of a Barcalounger. How many are real and how many are images I've superimposed to meet my needs, to assemble my personality, to cope?

True documentary evidence is scarce; I have only three relics that prove this life ever existed. There is the dog-eared senior photo that has outlasted a score of wallets and an accidental 1991 plunge into a swimming pool. There is the 1987 Final Four T-shirt that his mother gave me weeks after he died. And there is the videotape of the basketball game.

When I first watched it, I realized I had forgotten, despite all the hoops we played, how he moved; he hadn't for so long. No. 14, hands up on defense against Deer Lakes, setting picks and cutting through the paint of the gym. There he is still -- moving, breathing, running around with kids who, unlike him, grew into men. They were the ones who populated our driveways and our North Park pickup games, the nascent heroes of Hampton High School, now all in their 30s, some probably battling hair loss, overdue bills, bum knees and pot bellies. I would glare at the tape while it played, pressing my face to the television screen and hitting pause on the remote control, trying to wring bits of wisdom out of every pixel. I watched it every few months until I stopped two years ago. I had begun to resent it; it kept trying to abduct me to a place I feared I could never escape.

For years, I dreamed of him often. Sometimes it was about saving him, though I never saw his face in the dream. I would open the door of the study lounge, see only the back of his head and wake up suddenly, denied the opportunity to be a hero. Other dreams served him up in cameo appearances, sending him striding through narratives from later parts of my life in which he could never have participated. When I woke up, my anger at his last act would always feel fresh again, until morning routines pushed the dream away.

Awake, I am keeping the promises I made to myself when he died. I pledged that I would tell people when I cared about them, even if it made me look silly or vulnerable. I have always tried to live this; it has been painful, but it has created more rewards than I ever imagined. It led me to my wife, for one.

I vowed, too, that I would live enough for two people, to make up for an adulthood that was missed. It is in this arena that I still feel him most. I am carrying a lifetime on my back, seeing so he can see, inhaling it all, sometimes terrified that I will miss something if I don't follow all the paths at once.

I don't know if any of this makes sense. But does it have to? For nearly half my life I have tried to process the unprocessable, to wrangle one irrational momentary act into years of productive conclusions. Of course it is impossible. The list of facts -- a friendship freeze-dried into a series of brittled images -- always reappears. The boy I knew has ceased to be real; my memory of my friend is as much me as him.

When I come home to Pittsburgh, I ascend the hill to Mount Royal Cemetery and find his grave. It is one of the few truly quiet moments of my life. I look down upon Route 8, the Giant Eagle, Annette Ganassi Pontiac/GMC and the Shaler Racquet Club. The past starts pulling. For a while, I allow it to take me. Then I get back into the car and, for the moment, close the door to yesterday.

He should be 33, but he's forever 18. I'm 34, and you'll pardon me if I end this musing about endings now. I still have a lot of living to do. For two people.

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