Theoden: No parent should have to bury their child. [weeps]
Gandalf: He was strong in life. His spirits will find his way to the halls of your fathers.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
On February 15, 2003, my friend Brian Morden died. This little story details my trip to his memorial service a week later at his local church in Altoona, PA.
I drove the 6 hours to Altoona accompanied by Mark Levin/Have Blue, another Bungie fan regular. Dawn, Brian's mother, asked me to speak at the memorial which made me very nervous, but I wanted to do what I could to not let the Morden family down. I wasn't sure what I was going to say but at the end Mark and I decided to let the community do the talking for us.
We arrived at Geoff/Tirion's home Friday night, the day before the memorial. I'd like to thank him and his folks for letting us crash the night there. The following morning, we were pleasantly surprised to hear that Rob/Frogblast had traveled from Pittsburgh to attend the memorial. He was staying with Josh, another one of Brian's friends. We invited him to stop by since it's rare to get so many of us folks in one spot. I asked him if he wanted join our group-eulogy and he graciously accepted.
I needed to write an intro speech, so after some head-scratching I came up with something that I hoped would be a nice 'ice-breaker'; a way to intro our little motley crew to the lovely folks of Altoona. I read it to the guys, they liked it, and so we were off to church!
At this point I'd like to thank Josh for giving me a pair of black socks. I owe you one! :)
Josh had predicted that the church was going to be packed. I wasn't at all surprised but it was still a sight to see a line of folks going around the block! We met up with Pastor Jamie Olson who recognized me from my last visit to the church and he made us feel like we had backstage passes to a rock concert. :) He took us through a 'special' route over to the front of the Church. It was at this moment that I finally got to meet Fred and Dawn since I arrived the day before. All things considered they looked great, full of the same strength of spirit that I had encountered when Claude, Mahlon and I first met them, about a year ago at Brian's No Mo' Chemo party.
Meeting Brian's parents, Fred and Dawn, again, I was struck at how easily I could see Brian in them. They are a musical family. They all play instruments and Fred is a composer. He has an imposing presence. He's a big fella with a wide grin and huge hands, the kind of hands that reach out to shake yours before you know what's going on. At last year's party, I was witness to his ease with public speaking. He's a talker, a great talker, that can mix humor and gravity in one breath. For someone that is such a faithful servant of his church, you'd mistake him for a Pastor. There's no opposites here though, Dawn is also a formidable presence. Even though she was teary-eyed, she had a look of determination. Here was a woman that had to deal with her son, her own flesh and blood, fight such a terrible disease... a mother has an instinct to protect her young, but how frustrating to not be able to grab this cancer like a thing and stomp it on the ground, killing it before it can kill your loved ones. Yet she fought and fought, never letting her boy down, always by his side, giving him the strength she had, all of it.
Now add these two strong people together and you barely tap into the character that embodies their two boys, Brian and Jamin.
After we said our hellos we quickly moved over to another pew and took our seats. I saw Jamin/Ar-Anarion and Brian Johnson/SilverBrin, smiles all around as we shook hands. We were told that Pastor Olson had the first eulogy and then we would be next.
It was at this point that I saw Brian's memorial display on stage. The urn that contained his ashes were surrounded by flowers, a picture of Brian, his trumpet, and a Lord of the Rings glass ball. When I got up to get a closer look at the display, I noticed that his folks had his full online handle, *Ar-Isildur, etched into the cover. Just looking at that is enough to make you shed a tear.
I took a look behind me and the church was packed! They had to put up extra seats along the center aisle and folks were even being seated in the front chorus section. There was an even mix of adults and youths, some being families but definitely alot of young people came, just by themselves to show their support. Fred endeavored to get folks to squeeze on in and not be shy, saying "This is a Lutheran Church, we're friendly here." Ah, some humor is always good. :)
Jamin and Brian Johnson played a musical piece, the first of many musical expressions throughout the evening. Fred and Dawn played as well. Hymns and Psalms were sung, and then Pastor Olson did his eulogy. His speech was eloquent, and I did my best to concentrate on his words so I wouldn't get wrapped up in our group going up next.
When he finished we got up and went to the podium. Here's my intro speech:
I'm sure all of you are asking yourselves the same question: What's a Spanish guy doing here? Well, me and my friends have traveled from far away to give voice to the online community that Brian belonged to. We truly believe that if all of us who call ourselves friends of Brian had showed up you would need ten times the space to seat us all, with folks coming from all over this earth to pay their respects to such a great man. You see, Brian loved to play games, especially games made by this one company Bungie, and especially this one game called Halo. Brian was known to us by his nickname Ar-Isildur, sometimes shortened to Issy or even just AR. In the game you are a cyborg soldier, and you basically go around killing aliens to save the earth. You would think that such a violent game would attract evil people, but that is not the case at all. Brian, when he wasn't blasting us away with his shotgun or sniper rifle, was a warm and funny person to know. When folks were in heated discussion about some silly thing, Brian would always be the one to pop in and spread some love around. He used the 'less than' symbol and the number three to equal "LOVE." [I used my hands to demonstrate.] That was his sign. He owned it. Many of us did not know Brian was sick until about a year ago. We all pulled for him and sent him as much love and prayer as we could.
When news of his passing spread, there was an outpouring of messages. We would like to read some of them to you now. Some are poignant, some are funny, and some are unintentionally funny. We're sorry if some of the terms we use are unfamiliar to you, but I think you will understand the meaning behind them. There are many many more posts that we could read but we want to keep this short and not step on Fred's territory.
In closing I want to let you know that I will always have Brian close to my heart.
At this point I lifted up my dress shirt to reveal my T-shirt with the Super <3 logo that Deimos Fawkes AKA 3of9 designed.Then I stepped off the podium and Mark took my place. We had picked some of the more eloquent and interesting posts from the HBO forum, by Louis Wu, Ferrex, Nijhazer, as well as others, and read them in rotation. He read his piece and then Rob took the podium. We switched places a few times. We then quietly walked back to a pew. On reflection, we probably could've read more messages, but I guess we were too afraid of losing the crowd.
Whatever we said was about to be eclipsed, big time. Brian Johnson, Brian's best friend was next, then Brian's mother Dawn, and his father Fred followed. The three speeches truly fleshed out Brian as a person, a fighter of a horrible disease, and an important presence in their lives. They also filled us in on how the cancer changed their lives, the chemo treatments, the pain, Brian's beautiful red hair and how he at first cried over losing it, then admitting to his father that he looked pretty good bald. We also heard about the flip side, how they tried to forget about it... wandering through the hospital halls, going over the selections in the vending machines, watching movies, reading books, listening to music, his love of Tolkien, and seeing The Two Towers twice on the same day with his mother.
It was during these three speeches that I couldn't hold back the tears. I can't deny it, the Morden family reminds me of my own. I also have two boys and I wonder how I would deal with something like this if it happened to my family. I really don't know. I have a hard time imagining that I could be that strong for that long.
Fred's speech was very moving, almost enchanting. Near the end, his voice got louder and deeper and reminded me of thunder, bellowing thunder, as he cursed this cancer and how they were not going to let it go. If he had yelled "Follow me as we join the battle!" I have no doubt that I would've jumped up to join him by his side. He was truly inspirational.
There were more prayers and hymns after that. What was notable was that the band that Brian belonged to, or more accurately, the band that was composed of Brian's friends, played some truly amazing pieces. I mean, these guys just B L A S T E D the roof off the church. I had never heard such 'majestic' pieces, played so forcefully. They truly gave it their all.
When the service was over, we all went downstairs to the reception. It was here that we got to see pictures and video of Brian. You could see his beautiful red hair, and his lovely smile. His smile was everywhere! We also got to see some of the stuff in the care package Bungie had sent him. There's a lovely painting done by Lorraine Reyes McLees showing all of the characters in the Bungie Universe having a drink and partying it up. (Sound familiar? :) There were also stand-up displays of his trip to Bungie, his senior prom, and his entire life, in pictures, spread out among the tables.
We ate at the reception and met up with some other Halo nuts. Brandon, otherwise known as 'guy who doesn't post... too often' in the HBO forums sat with us as we ate. His friend Nathan had driven him over. We also met Matt Robertson, aka Spanky and some of his Halo playing buddies. We mentioned that Brian's folks were actually considerate enough to host a short Halo LAN fest at their home, so we arranged to meet in an about an hour at their home.
Some folks came up to us and mentioned how glad they were to have heard from the 'other' side of Brian's life. In retrospect I should've thanked them back for filling me in on what Brian's day-to-day life was really like.
So after filling up on chicken and mashed potatoes, and witnessing Jamin's touch with the ladies (I can't say anymore about that!) we headed out to Villa de Morden. There must've been about 20 of us, not including actual family relatives and acquaintances that were also on hand to spend some time with Fred and Dawn. They were all very pleasant though and did their best to ignore this sudden infusion of testosterone in the living room. I took the opportunity to hand out the other Brian <3 t-shirts I made to SilverBrin, Tirion, and Ar-Anarion.
After I set up my projector we were able to play a few 16 player games, of various gametypes that were of no real consequence. What is worth noting is that Jamin's 'team' of neighborhood and school buddies did a good job of taking on 'our side' of older men in some Blood Gulch CTF games and the like. I remember that Brian and Jamin were a tough team to beat last year as well.
At one point I was playing a game in Jamin's room with him, SilverBrin, and Tirion. I noticed that I was on a team composed of Brian's soulmates. Their mood was enlightening. We were almost playing the game with a level of indifference. I sensed a heavy, yet mature, mood. They have never stopped demonstrating to me that they are wise beyond their years. I can't help but predict that great things are in store for these young men.
Near the end, we tried to coordinate a 'Halo Memorial' for Brian. I thought it would be neat to grab some heavy artillery and try to carve Brian's <3 symbol into a rock wall in Blood Gulch. It's really tough to get 16 players to agree to not bash or run over each other as they try to get into position! After much shouting and hair-pulling, we got it done. I don't know how the rest of them felt, but I was proud to pull it off. The bullet hole graphics tend to fade over time, so we had to really hammer on the wall en masse in order to make the symbol readable.
Our last group effort was to line up in Hang 'em High and have Mark's character be the 'cameraman' for a group shot. But even that was tough, as we all had rocket launchers and... do I really need to explain it to you? I tried to take a pic of 15 rockets heading toward Mark, but all you can see is his legs spread akimbo as his bodying is flying around the map.
We wrapped up the games and folks started leaving. Rob piled back into his froggy-mobile and took off, sure to surprise us again in the future. Brandon and Matt and their respective circle of friends left. It was just Mark and I with Brian's best friends and his family. We packed up my car with all my hardware, we got some driving directions and headed out. As Fred walked me to my car, he said how funny and also spot-on my little "Spanish guy" comment was in my speech. :) My last contact with the Morden's that night is a hug and kiss from Dawn and a bear hug from Fred. I am blessed.
I barreled back to New York City, dropped off Mark and then headed home, where I greeted my family with hugs and kisses, thankful to have such a wonderful family.
Wait! I'm not finished yet.
Come back with me an hour or so before we left, when there was all this virtual mayhem taking place... the Morden's sitting in their kitchen, chatting with their friends and family, Jamin and his crew in his room defending their hometown honor against us, the strangers from around the country that took over their living room. Amidst all this, one thing kept tugging at me, making me look out the corner of my eye...
It was his bedroom. Brian's bedroom was dark. It was *the* room. I eventually got up the nerve to take a look inside and saw his Mac G4, some Myth posters on his wall, and plenty of other stuff. But it was soooo quiet. And dark. Yet here is where Brian lay only a week ago. This is where he asked his parents to take him back to... home.
It was tough to think about. It was almost surreal to hear all the laughter and at the same time remember that only a week ago, a young man lay nearby on his death bed, surrounded by his loving family, and slowly slip away. I felt sad, so very very sad.
I have to confess something now.
For whatever reason, fate or whatever you want to call it, I talked to Brian on the last night of his life. At the time, I had no idea.
When Brian got on the phone, I was instantly taken aback by his voice. His body was struggling to keep air moving in and out of his lungs. It was so very different than a year ago, when he was done with chemo and his body was full of strength. It shocked me, the physical change in his voice. The whole thing was shocking. So he gets on the phone and says something like "Hey Miguel!" and waits for my response. I'm so in shock that I forgot who or where I am. I'm holding a tissue to my mouth to hold back my sobs so he can't hear it. I don't want him to think he's making me cry. I should say something to let him know how much we all love him, or that our prayers and thoughts are still with him, that he is my hero. Instead all my puny head can come up with is "I'm doing great Brian, how are you?"
How pathetic! Now in retrospect, I know exactly what I should've said: "Brian, it's OK, you can go now. Don't stay here on account of us. You can leave now, everything will be fine. Let the pain go away. Just let it stop. You're ready, and you deserve some peace."
Just writing about it makes me cry all over again, because it really is the saddest part of all this. Brian's strength and courage is what left us in awe, and his warmth and humor is what made us proud to call him a friend and fellow Bungie fan. He is a hero, and what hero doesn't deserve his peace?
Goodbye to my friend and hero, Brian Morden.
- Miguel Chavez
ADDENDUM: After I submitted this story for corrections I was told that Brian actually did not spend his last evening in his bedroom, but in the living room! I thought about it and decided not to change the story because my reality of the events that night made me think he really did stay in his bedroom. I will mention it here though because knowing Brian, he would have a laugh at my expense for not realizing that I was sitting just inches away from where he was and yet I'm busy looking at his bedroom like it's some kind of shrine. OK, laugh it up Brian, laugh it up! :)