Republished from Charleston Grit.
Istarted May 2023 with the death of a friend. It’s news no one is quite prepared to hear on any day. When I heard it, I knew it was an undeniable truth. I’d hoped I read it wrong, but I knew the truth. Melvin Dorsey Jefferson III was found…It’s interesting how a sparse set of words can paint a picture so detailed in the mind, filling in, and even creating, details unheard or unconfirmed. Those words alone invoked an image, followed by scenarios of what might have happened. The manner of death I assumed. At the onset, I was numb. I found out via group text. And while I waited with pregnant pause for someone to say this was a cruel joke, all hope was eventually lost and reality started to sink in. We all knew that, whatever caused his death, it wasn’t natural. But cause is irrelevant when the truth of finality set in.
We all need friends. A recent study by Harvard revealed that a startling number of Americans are experiencing loneliness. Loneliness can exacerbate other mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. This epidemic increased during the pandemic as people were forced to isolate themselves even more. I am blessed to have met 16 total strangers 22 years ago on the campus of Florida A&M University and, 22 years later, have 16 brothers. The Quintessential 17, a unified body of men brought together by fraternity and bonded through friendship, was now a single body with only 16 moving parts. At the moment of death, you become your permanent and forever self; all strivings, eternally unreconciled. You become the most persistent memories you left behind. For some this is an accomplishment, for others, a nightmare.
As the news spread among the group, a common theme of both grief and reassurance made itself apparent. We met as a group that night to share thoughts. More importantly, we were able to share a full range of emotions, authentically and without judgment and with full support. Despite our distance, The Q17 has always been able to gather around a common cause of support for one another, an ethos that engenders both advocacy and accountability. We’ve shared weddings, births, graduations, miscarriages, divorces, and now the death of one of our own. Once it was made clear where he would be laid to rest, plans were made to celebrate our dearly departed brother.
Scattered throughout the country by circumstance, we gathered in his home city of Detroit, Michigan. As we each entered The Motor City AirBnB, a glimmer of elation shone in our eyes each time a new person walked through the door. In this surrogate frat house, grips were exchanged, smacksmacked was talked, and the gulf of time between our last meeting and now had vanished as if no time had passed at all. Being able to separate for years and then come back together as if nothing happened is the true measuring rod of friendship. We have all evolved in many ways. We are not who we were when we met 22 years ago; yet remarkably, and without contradiction, ‘everything has changed’ and ‘nothing has changed’ exist in the same space. True friendship is timeless and genuine love is eternal. Our love for one another is revered and sought after by others. As Friday slipped into nightfall, questions from classmates in the area came. “What’s the Q17 doing tonight?” “Are we going to Canada?” The unanimous sentiment, “we staying right here.” Indeed we had no reason to leave our abode. We had all of the necessary accoutrement for an evening of festive reflection, which included good food and drinks; talented cooks; excellent music; and the company of friends outside of the Q17 who loved us and added to what would be a rich evening. We didn’t need to go out. We needed to stay in. We needed to be in communion and fellowship. As the night grew on, the full eclectic and genuine nature of the Q17 shown through as the collage of unified personalities made themselves apparent.
The death of a loved one can have unpredictable effects, and everyone deals with it differently. There’s no sure way to predict how you’ll be affected. On the day of the memorial service, the remaining 16 of us met to prepare to go over the fraternity’s memorial procedures. We have always been each other’s source for refuge. During the service we each became a shoulder to cry on as one by one we collectively became undone. Although we had varying depths of closeness with our fallen brother, the fact remained that we lost a piece of ourselves. What’s worse was that we lost him to something totally unnatural and preventable. I had the opportunity to speak with him about his addiction before passing. I wanted to know how someone with his potential, education, and social status could’ve possibly caught this sickness. He told me it all started with a knee injury received after a car accident. The pain was intense and adequate healthcare in America is expensive, so he was prescribed opioids. Then he was overprescribed opioids. And when his insurance stopped covering it, he found opioids. At that point, addiction had set in, and no costs were too high to pay. Employment, gone; a unified happy family was now fractured; and close relationships with friends were strained. The pain of lost relationships were numbed by the thing that caused the pain in the first place, creating a nasty cycle. Resistance came in the form of rehabilitation centers and church attendance, but he kept searching for something to numb the pain, until one day all his pain was all gone forever. What remains; one widow, left to pick up all the pieces; two grievinggreiving parents, who saw their child rise like a shining star, only for his life to unnaturally end before theirs; four children under the age of 20, no longer able to seek the love and advice of a father on the physical plane; and 16 altered brothers. America’s War on Drugs has decimated countless communities from sea to sea. It rages on, far past the streets of the “inner city,” deep into our middle class suburbs and schools, leaving us all victims seeking solace from a system that does more to criminalize a health issue, rather than treat it. We are all made sick by it.
Serendipitously, the day of the funeral was also the charter day of our chapter. After the celebration of Melvin’s life, we celebrated each other, our bond, and another day to be alive in fellowship. Some people were able to be in town for the entire weekend, while some had only a few hours the day of the obsequies before flyingbeforeflying out. Despite chanting and offers to pay for later tickets, and after changing flights, our time together would once again come to a bittersweet end. By Sunday, the separation anxiety had set in and subsided. The house that was once a bustle with laughter and deep conversations had quieted. We channeled the spirit of Addie LaRue, ensuring the place looked as though we had never been there, and left.
No one escapes death. It is perceived as both a reward and a punishment. Those who are properly indoctrinated understand that death is punishment to those who have cultivated a good life by spreading love and compassion; and death is a reward to those afflicted with all the world’s ails. Acceptance offers both sweet surrender and the anguish of absence. And more agonizing, the silence and whispers. Death is ultimately what makes life precious. In life, we have the infinite capacity to love, invent, inspire, or do mischief. Death only punctuates the pages of our lives. As we continue to live, my hope is that we continue to fill our pages with tales where love is the main character. As each one of our stories come to an end in the grand anthology of human existence, my hope is that those who helped create it, feel as honored being among the pages as the author felt by having them in place. The beauty in friendship is that it exists on a quantum level. And once lives have been entangled, a change in one instantaneously causes a change in the other, no matter where they are. For those who don’t have any friends, I encourage you to make one. And for those of you with friends, I implore you to keep those friendships deep, and auscultate them often to keep them alive. And above all, live a life worth mourning over.