Something More Than Free

I met Stephen McRedmond when I was 17 years old. My father introduced me to him. They’d met primarily because Stephen was a staunch performance arts champion and aficionado, which had led him to organize several gigs in Nashville. My stepmother, Marsha, who’s a dancer herself, ended up collaborating with him — an endeavor that strengthened their relationship as well as shaped the foundation for a long and fruitful friendship between my family and his.

Stephen lived on what seemed to be a family compound situated right outside Nashville. But the decency and modesty of the estate made it feel like a large farm — with acres and acres of woods and land, large gardens, creeks, and a barn. I forget how many dogs Stephen had. For all I know, Stephen could’ve had dozens, because, wherever I’d go within the confines of the farm, I’d be accompanied by one of his pups. They acted like the farm’s guardian angels, in that I felt I could wonder wherever I’d want and never feel lost. In many ways, Stephen had that same effect on the people he cared about.

He was very fond of Quebec and the Northeastern United States. This is so perhaps because those regions harbor more progressive values than Tennessee and a rather firm detachment from the whole religiosity of the South. Stephen even got married to his partner in one of the very first gay marriages in New Hampshire — an occasion I’ll never forget. I had taken the SAT the morning of the celebration party — later held in a tasteful auberge located in Portsmouth’s downtown area — which now symbolizes my first step toward studying in the United States and becoming an American citizen.

Some months after his wedding — during one of my last games with Brébeuf’s CEGEP basketball team — I received a voicemail from my father who informed me that Stephen had been killed in absolutely atrocious circumstances, the details of which I’ll pass over. (I’m afraid that posts like these do not provide an adequate medium for such things.) As I was listening to my father’s trembling and tearful voice, I didn’t know how to react. Rage. Anger. Sadness. Disbelief. Frustration. You name it.

Stephen didn’t have a bad bone in his body, nor did he have any obvious flaws, for that matter. To my family and me, he was an angel. And angels are supposed to provide relentless guidance, support, and loyalty. Their presence are to some extent eternal — completely impermeable to external conditions and uncontrollable variables.

But there lies something dangerous in transforming people into symbols, friends into “pillars”, family members into never-ending sources of support. Namely, everyone — until proof to the contrary — hides vulnerabilities and snapping points that surface in unexpected moments. How could anyone want Stephen any harm? Who would ever want to hurt such a good, dependable and caring person? Although the answers to the questions may be hard to handle, being confronted to the truth is always better than replacing it with imagined stories that camouflage it. (For the record, I still don’t have a clear idea of what exactly happened. I’ll never want to know.)

It is very easy to be reassured by the presence of others, especially when they’re incredible, talented, inspiring, and impassioned. But the fight doesn’t stop when they’re merely there — it stops when relationships are saturated with authenticity and permeated with realness. It stops when the constellation of life events that constitute someone’s story is crystal clear — understandable to those who pay close attention.

I am counting my blessings — and so should we all — because they’re finite. Stephen was one of them — an angel I took for granted. But, without him, I would never have realized that idealizing other people is harmful. It paints an untruthful picture of the battles everyone goes through. And we all might end up at the losing end of those battles. So let’s stay true to each other. Enjoy the struggle. Love the arduous and, at times, painful process of life. They’re all we have, after all.

As a concluding note, here’s a glimpse of a song I’ve been listening to a lot (thanks to my brother) recently. Something More Than Free by Jason Isbell. If you have some tolerance for country music, give it a listen.

“When I get home from work/I’ll call up all my friends/And we’ll go bust up something beautiful we’ll have to build again/When I get home from work/I’ll wrestle off my clothes/And leave them right inside the front door/’cause nobody’s home to know/You see, a hammer finds a nail/And a freight train needs the rail/And I’m doin’ what I’m on this earth to do”
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