Three months ago, I lost a very close friend: Sean M. Wells. He was 34 years old.
I’ve been trying to write this post in my head since March 10. How much did I want to share? What do I really want to say? What would I like to remember when everything gets a little fuzzy? How can see through my tears to type this?
I’ll never forget the day he died. We were at the indoor pool swimming in a swim clinic we had both signed up for to learn how to swim more efficiently (and thus, faster while not working as hard). Sean pulled himself out of the pool after not more than 10 minutes, which was unusual for him. Lifeguards responded, 911 was called, I rushed to get his wallet and personal belongings. There’s no point in documenting here, step-by-step, what happened. Everyone did everything they could, as quickly as possible, but Sean didn’t make it.
Yes, he had a congenital heart condition. Yes, he was cleared to swim and be carefully active by his heart doctor. No, in the eight years I knew Sean he never showed a single symptom or complaint. Yes, I miss him every single day.
I didn’t like Sean when I first met him, and he didn’t like me. Neither one of us could remember the first time we hung out one-on-one, but after that we realized that there was room for a friendship here. Since we were both single and liked to cook, but hated cooking for ourselves only, Sean and I would switch off cooking for each other, and eventually incorporated movies into these evenings. He made it his goal to have me watch every Coen Brothers movie, as well as others that he felt I should have seen (like Jaws).
A fan of live sporting events, Sean took me to see his beloved Redskins three times, and once I got to go to a Caps game with him. I wore one of his Caps jerseys and it looked like a dress on me so I knotted it up 80s style. After the game, we went to RFD for a beer. For Skins games, we’d stop at Nick’s on the way up for subs and chips. Our first Skins game together was November 2008 — it was cold, and I ordered a hot chocolate at the stadium. They poured a packet in a cup, then filled it with hot water. Without a spoon or a stirrer, I had no way to turn the gooey bottom contents of my cup into actual hot chocolate. Instead, Sean and I took turns sipping the hot water until it got low enough to swish around inside the cup to mix up the chocolate powder at the bottom. He told me the next time we’d bring a spoon, but the following two games were much warmer.
Sean is the reason I started swimming laps. He was always asking people to join him in the activities he participated in; Sean was a gatherer of friends. I never thought I could enjoy swimming laps, I thought it would be like running on a treadmill (boring). But he was enjoying himself so much, and losing so much weight, that I figured I ought to give it a shot. Now, swimming is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable things in my life. I love him for opening that door, and for being my swim partner for more than four years.
I called him my ‘swim husband’ because he would take me to the pools on base where I didn’t have free access because I am a contractor, not civil service or military. Since we showed up together regularly once a week, then twice a week (or more)… everyone assumed we were married. Oops! We both thought it was really funny. I have no pictures of us from swimming, or from the 2011 Pax Team Tri that we participated in (because we were on separate teams).
Sean liked sushi and golf and bowling. He had a big pair of fuzzy slippers that he wore around the house, and an apron that he wore when he cooked. Money was never an issue — we always went Dutch or traded off treating one another, and tabs weren’t kept. But it did bother him when I’d end up baking or cooking a lot and bringing him goodie bags and leftovers, and he would inform me that it was “his turn” to treat next. If Sean was in town, he’d show up to whatever you invited him to… even my Mom’s annual fried sourdough birthday parties. He’d always hang out, work on the annual puzzle and talk to the different waves of people that showed up. One year, his work travel took him to England, and he looked all over the areas he visited for a particular brand and flavor of jam that he knew I liked but couldn’t get stateside. When he couldn’t find it, he brought me two of his favorite flavors back from across the pond (both strawberry).
When Sean and I would e-mail each other, we’d always re-name ourselves by working our names into some cultural trivia/reference. For example, I’d start my e-mail with “Walking on Seanshine,” and then sign off with “Jen Just Wants to Have Fun.” It didn’t have to be song titles, you could venture into any movie, song, television, pop culture reference that you wanted to. Most of the time I’d get Sean’s references, but sometimes I’d have to get a little help from Google. Sean was King of the Random Movie Quote, and knew a wide variety of artist/song/album trivia. I didn’t always “get” his humor, but he’d often take pity on me and explain himself, or save his really clever quips for other friends who might appreciate them more.
Sean let me go clothes shopping with him one year. He’d lost a lot of weight, and had a $300 Macy’s gift card from his birthday to spend on new work clothes. We went to the Dockers pant section, and I cut Sean a deal: if he’d try on the style that I picked out as well as the style of pants that he’d been buying, we’d talk about the fit of each in the mirror. In the end, I’d shut up and he could buy whatever style he liked best, no pressure. The sales lady in the dressing room watched with an amused expression on her face as I voiced the particulars of fit with Sean, who we had to explain was not my boyfriend or husband, and she provided her own thumbs up to a particular pair.
At the checkout counter, Sean ended up with a new style of pants to flaunt his slim swimmer’s physique, plus several new button down shirts including (gasp!) two with stripes. (For some reason, Sean said he didn’t like striped shirts, but I convinced him to buy two that were tonal, where the stripe was formed from a matte vs sheen look of the same color fabric.) His total bill was $300.08, and I ponied up the $0.08 because while Sean’s house was full of spare change, he almost never carried any coins in his pockets. Sean was thrilled with his purchases, often choosing to put together outfits from the new clothes on days we’d swim so he could show me. He looked great, so handsome in his new duds. I believe we finished off that trip to Annapolis with dinner and a movie, True Grit at the theater. And I think we shared a bag of his favorite — Reece’s Pieces — for dessert during the movie.
We met through a mutual friend, Amy. In 2008, Amy got married and Sean and I prepared for the reception by participating in a group ballroom dance lesson each month. I could never remember the steps, so Sean would start every dance by listening, then telling me what dance step we would use and reminding me what the cadence of the steps was. During the reception we had an opportunity to show off a bit, and it was so much fun and included a dip!
Sean participated in a happy hour crowd aptly called, Happies. He really wanted me to join him for Thursday night happy hours around town, and early on Amy and I went to one. Through no fault of Sean’s, it wasn’t a really good introduction, and I chose not to participate in those events after that. When he met his girlfriend, Liz, I told him, “You’d better introduce us early on so she knows that I’m not competition!” We arranged a meeting over lunch after swimming one weekend, and when Liz went to the bathroom I looked at Sean and said, “I really like her! She’s a keeper!” Over the past year, I had started agreeing to join Sean for more activities and events — some with just Liz, like going up to Washington D.C. for Ethiopian food, and some with the larger Happies group, like a New Years Eve party.
Since one of Sean’s goals was always to bring people together, I could tell he was enjoying watching his groups of friends finally merge. We made plans to go to a local restaurant/bar for a comedy show on March 10, but Liz and I ended up at the hospital, sobbing into each other’s shoulders that afternoon instead and trying to understand why the world stopped spinning. The following week, Liz and I were surrounded by the support, love and commiseration from all of Sean’s friends. I found myself a part of the Happies crowd, and realized that I had been remiss in not giving this group of people a second shot (like I had with Sean). Individually and as a group, they’re pretty awesome and I count myself lucky to now have them as friends.
It’s crazy how big a part of my life Sean became, especially considering how rocky our toleration of each other was when we first met. (We met at Monterey, a Mexican restaurant, both of us joining our mutual friend Amy for dinner and margaritas.) Eight years later, it’s hard to believe he doesn’t live basically right across the street anymore or that he won’t write back when I send him a text. To cope and to honor Sean’s memory, what I am trying to do is to live with a more open mind and heart. To say “Yes!” to more things, people and opportunities. And to keep my friends and family close, because people are important.
The Sean Abides,
I miss you. I love you. I’ll meet you in the pool on the flip side.
The Big Jenowski