The day was Good Friday, 1999.
Outside LaGuardia Airport in New York, the sun blanketed me like warm flannel sheets. When my parents arrived late, which is highly unusual, I already began to suspect something was wrong.
My father hugged me extra tight, and my mother squeezed my shoulder. We hopped into the car, and I rambled on, listing the chores I had to get done before Easter – make the baskets for my little cousins, dye eggs, clean.
But my parents interrupted me and looked at each other – the way only an old married couple can. My mom turned to me suddenly.
We have chores to do but not for Easter, she said and tears emerged. Alex died last night.
Alex Taranto was my younger brother’s best friend since they were in the third grade. He died April 1, 1999, a week before his 19th birthday. At first, no one knew what caused his death.
I had so many questions. Did someone slip him something? Did he drink too much? Did he experiment with any drugs? Did he make the mistakes that cost the lives of so many college-aged students? No, he couldn’t. Alex was not the type.
Later on Friday, an autopsy revealed Alex died of a heart attack, the result of an undetected enlarged heart.
My brother John and his friends James, Billy, Cory and Alex were inseparable since elementary school. In middle school, Steven joined the crew. A few months earlier we celebrated their high school prom and graduation.
Alex collapsed as he got off a New Jersey bus, on his way home from college on Holy Thursday, according to the story that was echoed by numerous voices that weekend.
My brother called Alex to see if he wanted to hang out Thursday night. Tony, Alex’s brother and one of my oldest friends, told John to meet him at the hospital. John and Cory arrived at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, N.J., as a Catholic priest blessed Alex. He had already died. My brother screamed that the doctors were wrong, that Alex couldn’t be dead. He was not even 19 yet, John told them as if they didn’t know. The nurses asked John to leave because his hysteria might be too much for Alex’s family.
When I arrived home the next morning, John and Cory were in the living room calling their classmates, teachers and acquaintances. My 15-year-old sister was weeping in the corner, clenching a pillow and petting our dog. My mother and father already had begun cooking for Alex’s family, so the house smelled of fresh pizza dough and vodka sauce. Alex was Sicilian, and Italian tradition requires that friends and neighbors cook for the grief-stricken because their kitchen should remain pure during mourning.
James and Billy arrived from Boston University by early afternoon. Steven came from Rutgers University, which is about an hour away from our house in Fort Lee, N.J. Jason, a friend to Tony and me, came from Chicago.
By Friday afternoon, we were all together, and we had food to deliver to the Taranto family. Jason and I walked toward the door ahead of the others. John and his friends had to grieve for the dead; Jason and I had to grieve for the living.
Tony met us outside on the walk-way up to his aunt’s house. Without speaking a single word, Tony clenched his teeth and grabbed Jason and me – the fiercest hug I ever felt. Then he sobbed out loud, and I could feel dampness from his tears on my shoulder. Jason and I cried too.
For the next few days, whenever we were all together, we would laugh about happy memories of Alex – how he ate everything my father offered him including rabbit and tripe, just like an old paisano. How he couldn’t hold his liquor. How his poetry was beautiful. He was the one with all the words, John kept repeating.
And then the laughter would turn to tears. I didn’t know true sadness until I watched 19- and 20-year-old men wail with their heads in their hands.
A wave of exhaustion swept over us all – the kind of tired that keeps people from standing up and holding their eyes open. Despite that kind of sleepiness, no one slept the entire weekend.
The wake and funeral, which occurred the day before and the day after Easter respectively, were sick sorts of high school reunions for my brother’s class and mine. I laughed and cried and consoled people I had not seen since graduation in 1996.
It was as if Alex had brought us home, back to each other.
But Alex was not the only loss we were mourning. A seemingly healthy young man died, and a piece of all of us went with him. Suddenly, our own deaths seemed imminent.
Alex never fell in love or launched his career. He would miss college graduation, all the boys’ weddings. He’d never have children of his own. We buried him April 5, 1999, Tony’s 21st birthday. Alex was proof that anyone’s heart could just stop.
In church, in the final moments of the funeral Mass, I felt Alex depart. Silence hit the pews – not a sob or a whimper from the crowd.
John, James, Billy, Cory, Steven and Tony lifted their friend and brother – Alex Taranto – out the door and up to Heaven.