BY CHRIS HAN
Alex went to my middle school. We were in Christian Club together for a while. He was the president. He had a loud voice and he prayed fervently. That was all I really knew or cared to know about him.
In the middle of eighth grade I began turning Alex into an idea. I would like to think it was inevitable. What else are you supposed to do with a kid who announces to thirty middle schoolers that he has cancer? Alex told us he had a particularly deadly form, that it was in his soft tissue and leg muscle and seemed to be spreading, and that the doctors told him that children with cancer could die quickly because as they grew so did their cancer cells. And he said he would not die. He said God would heal him. So, you see, I had to make Alex special.
Over the years, I finished Alex’s transformation into an idea. It was not hard to do. He swept in and out of our classrooms; long enough for me to see him, not long enough for me to become disillusioned with him. Our relationship consisted of a series of short questions and short answers. I would ask him if he was doing all right. Alex would grin and say God was taking care of him.
I picked up tidbits about him during our years in high school. He was proud of being Russian. He liked cars and wanted to get into uc Berkeley. I learned more important things as well. He was getting a preaching license through some kind of online seminary program, which I had not known you could do. I do not think he really needed the license. He came to school more than usually cheerful one day and told us he had given a sermon from a park bench. He also survived his first round of cancer. His doctors were confused, but I felt a certain smugness. His survival felt like a validation of my beliefs.
I noticed the physical changes. Alex sprouted a cane which he used to walk around sometimes. His cheeks hollowed. He went permanently bald. Alex started looking more normal again in junior year or so, after the chemotherapy stopped, but then the cancer came back.
In the five years until senior year of high school, we had a single genuine conversation. I asked him what job he wanted. He told me he wanted to be a businessman, like his dad. That did not quite go with what I wanted to know about him, so I set it aside. I asked him what virtue he respected the most.
“Integrity,” he said. “I want to be a man of such integrity that my wife, my church, and my business associates will never have to doubt me.”
I filed that away. Alex became to me, not so much a role model, but a book, some great classic that I took off the shelf again and again and puzzled over for years. I believed that if I contemplated that book long enough I would come to understand more about life and God. I struggled to understand how he could have such great faith. I wondered if I should be as confident as he was, or if it was alright to stay the way I was.
Alex died when we were seniors. I was unsettled by his death. It was not the death of the protagonist of my book that bothered me. I knew that was allowed, even necessary, in books, and I had a ready explanation for it. What disturbed me were certain details in those last scenes. The details interrupted my understanding of the novel and kept its ending from being satisfying. At book’s end, readers should be left with a sense that they have expanded, that they have become better in the wake of those words. I was left, instead, with an image and some words that itched at me till I bled.
His last words to the school were posted on Facebook by a friend. He declared, he believed, that God would heal him. Alex slipped into a coma, and died.
There was an open casket at his funeral. They had slathered his face in make-up. He looked like a whitewashed puppet. Like a lie. He had loved integrity.
His story failed me. I could not permit that. Not when his story had been the foundation for so much of my thought and emotion. Instead I toyed with doubting the Writer.
I wrestled with all this for a few months and came to no satisfying conclusion. I had received a card from his funeral. I pinned that to my wall as a sort of promise to deal with these memories, and then for a year and a half I slipped into an uneasy, false rest.
Three weeks ago, I began writing this reflection on Alex. It was a way to force myself to think about him.
When I revisited Alex’s blog, I found there had been more added to it since I last checked. I learned that becoming a businessman was just a side goal. He wanted to become an evangelist at Yale. At the same time, it turns out that he was trying hard to understand why his cancer had returned. It surprised me that Alex would be troubled over that. He had always been so sure of everything.
I found a link to Alex’s Twitter, but the comments he made bothered me. Alex would say these great things about faith and fire, and then he would tell some joke that was not funny at all. Sometimes he would sprinkle in comments that I found kind of dumb, or talk about how tasty his food was. It was irritating.
I ended up ignoring those details in the first drafts of this essay. In fact, I ended up almost erasing Alex altogether from an essay that had originally been meant partly as an elegy. I suppose I realized that I had done something wrong when, after looking over my first draft, one reader told me he could not tell who Alex was—what he was sick with, how old he was, what his ministry was like. I saw I had become so caught up in answering the question of his death that I had forgotten about his life.
This week, I brought up Alex in passing to my dad; told him that it bothered me that God had not honored Alex’s faith and that Alex had believed, and yet had been so wrong, about what God would do.
My dad called me dumb, and told me that Alex had just been a kid who still had a lot to learn about God. He also told me that even if Alex’s knowledge was still green, his trust in God was something beautiful that he had presented to God.
I gave Alex a burden no human can bear. I turned his story into a vine that shaded me against my burning doubts. When that vine withered away, when Alex’s last moments were not in keeping with the flawless Christian I needed him to be, I resented the God who took away my protection. But Alex had always been flawed. It was the One who tended to Alex who made him beautiful.
I wish I had let Alex be a person, and not just the hero in a story. I wish I had let him be fallible. I wrestled with his death for so long, and still cannot quite let it go, because I needed Alex to be my faith for me. I wish I had just let him be a child with a child-like faith, whose Father framed his gawky drawings on the wall. Perhaps then I could have fought with him, failed with him, and grown with him. Perhaps I could have watched the Father as He quietly gardened, ensuring that five years that should have been tragic would bloom. Instead, I did both the Gardener and Alex a terrible wrong. I seeded Alex’s death with doubt.
Strange, then, that what grew out of it in the end was an apology, a thank-you, and a hope that these smudged words too would be framed on a wall.