On December 13, 2014, my best friend, Brad, got married. In the space of a few seconds Brad Knetl and Aida Ibisevic became Mr. and Mrs. Knetl. The ceremony took place in his parents' house. It was a very small affair, just a few friends, his immediate family, and Aida's family via Skype. I was his best man. I wore my nicest t-shirt and least-grubby blue jeans and wept when I delivered the toast. I also took pictures. Lots of pictures.
It wasn't quite how anyone expected it. He was supposed to be married in Bosnia, with his fiance's family in attendance. I was supposed to wear a kilt. I still would've given the toast. I still would've cried. I love Brad like a brother. I've known him since I was eight. We were worst enemies and best friends. We got into endless trouble and drove everyone around us, especially his parents, crazy.
I hadn't been to a wedding since I was a little kid. I'd certainly never been the best man. Nor had I ever been a wedding photographer. Or even an event photographer. I don't really like shooting people. Because I don't really like people. I'm an introvert, a misanthrope, and an outsider. Waaaaay outside. Brad is the only person in the world who makes me feel like I'm on the inside. Brad likes outsiders. Brad likes people with hard edges and iron in their soul. Brad can bring the best out of them. Brad can bring the best out of me. So I stood by him as best I could and I stole moments through the viewfinder at every opportunity.
Brad had celebrated his 33rd birthday on November 20th.
I had celebrated my 33rd birthday on December 8th.
On December 5th, Brad was diagnosed with anaplastic thyroid carcinoma.
The short version is:
It's a death sentence.
The long version is:
Median life expectancy is four months from diagnosis. 3 year survival rate is under 7%. If the cancer is localized to the thyroid, maybe they can cut it out and you'll have a couple more years. If it's spread—and 90% of patients already have distant metastases at diagnosis—all you can hope for is weeks. Maybe months. But no longer. It is aggressive and does not respond well to treatment.
He was told it was in his lungs on December 12th.
The next day, he was married.
Yesterday, he died.
You'll have to forgive my shattered narrative. Sorry.
When I got the email from Brad about his diagnosis I felt like someone had reached into my chest, wrapped their fingers around my heart, and started to squeeze. My world shrank. Everyone in it faded. I could barely remember a time before I knew him, and there had literally never been a day in my life when Brad was not alive.
I saw Brad a month before that. He helped me hump an almost-200lb printer up a flight of stairs and then set it up. He was not feeling well. He'd been to a friend's wedding and come down with a bug. He was still getting over it. But he was there for me, because he always was. Because that's who he was. We had no gods and no religion, but friendship was always sacred. Is always sacred.
When we were done, we did what we always did: smoked some bratwurst and sat around the grill. We were sore and happy, full of food, sloshing over with tea, and reeking of smoke and sweat. We sat in the back yard throwing logs onto the fire while the day died, shooting the shit and letting life wash over us.
The chair he sat in was his chair. It was the only chair in the back yard. I always sat on a big orange bucket. Brad once asked why I didn't have a full set of furniture and I said, "Because people might take it as an invitation to sit with me." He laughed. The chimney starter he lit the fire with was his chimney starter. He gave it to me for my birthday, but he was always the one to light the fire. It was the best present I'd ever gotten. It's miraculous. The grill is a grill I got so I could cook with Brad. I've spent a lot of good hours grilling with Brad. That night was no different.
We talked. I asked Brad when he was going to get his Masters Degree. He asked when I was going to get a job. I asked when he was going to marry Aida. He asked when I was gonna get a shopping cart system set up on dementlieu. I asked when he was gonna launch his blog. Back and forth. Forth and back. We joked about our mortality and said, "We need to do this more often."
The next time I saw him was two days after the diagnosis. One day before my birthday. The tumor had taken his voice and he couldn't manage anything above a whisper. Even so, there weren't many words. Just barely contained tears.
I don't know what I want to say with this, but I know I can't stop typing. Brad's life is over. Brad is gone. Brad will never come back. He is one of tens of thousands of people who will die today. I want to say why it matters, and I don't think I can.
I wasn't concerned when Brad got sick, but I was a bit worried when he helped me lug my printer into the house—he was flagging and his energy level was very very low. When I talked to Brad a week later, he was obviously sick and I started to get worried. He sounded terrible and I jokingly said, "You sound like a dead man." He laughed.
The week after his birthday, when he told me he had a thyroid nodule and needed to have it biopsied, I was actually relieved. There are a zillion and one causes of thyroid nodules, they're rarely cancerous, and even when they're malignant, thyroid cancer is easily treatable and the survival rate is fantastic. I was worried and I was scared, but I figured they'd biopsy, treat whatever was wrong, and Brad would get back to normal. That's haunted me.
When I heard the diagnosis, it physically hurt. I sent Brad an email. It wasn't long:
Got nothin' else. Fuckfuckfuckityfuckfuck.
I sat in front of the computer for a long time after that, doing nothing. Literally nothing. Staring at an empty screen and hurting. Then I went backwards. I let myself sink into the archive of digital crud that makes up most of my life. I went back to June 29, 2001, and began floating back towards the present day.
June 29 was the first time I used a real digital camera—not a scanner, not a webcam (remember golf-ball webcams?), but an honest-to-god battery-powered camera-shaped-box that made pictures with electrons. I'd never been into photography before. Shooting film was a pain in the ass, the results were always terrible, and you never knew how terrible until the prints came back. Digital imaging fascinated me and I'd spent countless hours making scanographs, but a digital camera was something completely different.
The camera was fascinating. It was intoxicating. Bewitching, even. It belonged to Brad's father, but I didn't let that bother me or slow me down. I could take photos. Real photos. Powerful photos.
Brad and I took to the streets. We spent a hell of a lot of nights prowling around the darkness with a camera in hand—first his father's camera, then Brad's camera, and finally one of my own.
I learned to take pictures at Brad's shoulder. Days and weeks and years of shooting. Tens of thousands of frames. Lots of frustration. Lots of learning. Lots of memories.
I don't really delete pictures. It's just bad policy. And on December 5th, I was grateful for that. I don't know how long I spent going through photos—four hours? five? six?—and trying to remember the moments they captured. Sometimes I'd find a photo with a story, and I'd tell it to myself, sometimes aloud, sometimes not, sometimes two or three or four times, and often with tears in my eyes. I wore myself down to the point where I started falling asleep in my chair.
I've gone back to those photos again and again and again. There's thirteen years, three months, three weeks, two days, seventeen hours, and fifty-four minutes between the first picture I took of him and the picture I took of him on the day my printer was delivered. I've been grateful for every single one of those seconds I shared with Brad and the camera. I've been grateful for all the seconds before, and all the ones after, but those seconds with photos are something else entirely.
Photos are portals to the past. Photos crystalize fluid moments. Photos give immortality to the blink of an eye. Photos bring the past back to life. Photos make the dead rise and walk and talk and smile and laugh and love and live again.
Brad gave me that. That and so much more.
Brad died with his parents, his sister, his wife, his mother in law, and me at his side. He had been in so much pain. So much pain. So much fear. The human body can be horrifyingly resilient sometimes. But the pain was gone at the end. The fear was gone. And then Brad was gone. He was much loved and will be much missed.