Three years ago today I was sitting at a funeral questioning a lot of things about my life.
Why was I here on Christmas Eve? How did this even happen? Why was my sister’s best friend being lowered into the ground on such a happy day? How could it be that December 22nd, 2005 was both one of the best and worst days of my life? What does it mean when a teenager dies three days before Christmas?
It wasn’t like we were best friends, but it wasn’t hard finding things to talk about. His name was Ryan. He liked cartoons. He wanted to be a writer. These are things that mesh well with someone like me, and it didn’t hurt that he liked sports. It was a casual interest at best, but compared to me it seemed like everyone was merely a “causal” fan.
Most importantly, my sister had fun when he was around. They are both two very quiet, nice people who only wanted to have a friend. There are many things I will never understand about my sister, but I will always understand why they were best friends. They liked the same things, carried themselves the same way, and struggled with the same things growing up. They were perfect for each other, expect for one thing: Ryan was born with a heart problem.
I got the phone call while I was at school. I don’t usually talk about my personal life around here, but I was in high school, and my sister is two years older than me. She and Ryan were the same age. My father has never been at a loss for words while on the phone, but this call was different. Something had happened, and I’d never heard him sound so sad.
Everything that was happening around me fell apart. It was the last day of school before break, and it seemed like everyone was having a party of some sort. When I heard what happened, everything melted away. No secret santa, no brownies or pizza, nothing. Just dead air on a cell phone and the two of us trying not to cry. There is no proper analogy to describe the shift in emotion I felt just then. Nothing in sports or anything else can describe it. The world I had lived in just completely shattered, and I haven’t even talked to Joelle yet.
There was a Sabres game that night, but I couldn’t tell you anything about it. They lost, I guess, but none of that really mattered to me. I remember watching it and wondering if sports would ever mean anything to me. There were so many more important things going on in the world; who could possibly put so much into such a novelty?
The funeral was set for Christmas Eve, a Saturday. His family didn’t want to spend Christmas thinking about burying their son, and I don’t blame them. My family celebrates with extended family on Christmas Eve following 4pm mass, which made for another roller coaster of emotions. The day between was a blur of shopping and complete depression, which felt like a waste at the time and would be to talk about now.
This was an odd day for football fans as well, as the majority of teams played their games on that Saturday because of Christmas falling on a Sunday. That meant the Bills game was at one, just after a funeral and just before I was supposed to be packed into a church with 400 other people. This was going to be the worst Christmas of my life, and I knew football should have no place in my day given the circumstances.
But there I was on the couch at one with my dad, both of us wearing dress shirts with ties askew. We had no real reason to watch, the Bills weren’t making the playoffs and the Kelly Holcomb Experiment was in full swing. They hadn’t won on the road all year. Cincinnati was going to win big, so what’s the point in getting more depressed?
Still, my Dad had taught me growing up to always give it a chance, and so we watched. The Bills kept it surprisingly close, and even led for a good part of the game. It stayed close enough that when 3:30 rolled around and we had to leave for church we suddenly didn’t want to. We decided to tape the game and watch the end when we got back home, just before leaving for dinner at my uncle’s.
We listened in the car as the Bills drove down the field. While my mom and sister went inside to find a place to stand, my father and I looked for a place to park. We found a space but didn’t leave the car for another ten minutes. Just one more play, we kept saying. One more play to see if they can get that field goal. We left with about three minutes left. There were more important things to attend to, and no matter what doubts I had in my head about things, there was someone who needed a few extra prayers.
It was the worst mass I had ever been to.
When we got home we immediately put the game on. The Bills proceeded to kick a field goal, giving them the lead with less than a minute left. Here they were, about to win another meaningless game. Still, this was a playoff team they had in Cincinnati, and they got the ball back with time. We all know how the Bills will lay down for some teams, and it looked like another opportunity to do just that. Three plays later Terence McGee jumps a route, catches the ball as he’s spinning, and returns it for a touchdown. The Bills were going to win.
It was a meaningless game in every sense of the word. The Bills weren’t going anywhere, their coach would leave that off season, and none of us really should have cared about that game. For some reason, though, we did. I think in a way that’s the most important Bills game I’ve ever watched, and I’ll never forget watching that interception over an hour after it happened.
During that entire period, the only time I saw my family smile was when McGee hit the end zone. For as hard as I took Ryan’s death my sister and mother took it that much harder. When that 37-27 score went final I saw both of them smile, if only for a second or two, but I think it made all the difference in the world.
There are a lot of times in which I question what I do with my life. I care about the wrong things and sometimes I forget that there are more important things than box scores and ticket stubs. But ever since that Christmas I began to value sports a bit differently. I think that game helped my family more than any condolence or prayer could have. After three days of hell we needed something, anything to smile about, and Terence Mcgee gave it to us. That may sound sad and pathetic but I don’t care, I never will, and I’ll never apologize for the role sports plays in my life.
That game meant nothing. Sports mean nothing. But sometimes it means absolutely everything.
My intention was not to depress, so please don’t let this get you down. The fact of the matter is that this is the first time I’ve ever written about what happened. For months afterwords I couldn’t write anything at all, I just felt like I had nothing to say. Things are different now, and for the first time I felt like there was something worth talking about. It will never be fair, but I don’t think anyone is expected to have all the answers. Maybe someday it will make sense.
When you see your family today or maybe tomorrow, don’t think about Ryan. He’s remembered quite well, and every time Robot Chicken comes on or I sit down here to write I will think about him. Instead, think about your family and friends and what they mean to you. Think about your children or your brothers and sisters. Think about the things that matter in your life, and remember why they matter to you in the first place. I promise you’ll find a reason for it.
Merry Christmas, everyone. Make it your best one yet.