Requiem For A Friend

This afternoon, a very important person in my life, Aaron Sterling, lost a life long and difficult battle with a horrendous disease, Cystic Fibrosis.

Aaron was originally from Skowhegan, and my first encounter with him was at the University of Maine, very early in my academic career.  He was intensely interested in politics, and almost right away involved himself with campus life, specifically the Residents on Campus organization.  Wasn’t long before he had taken over the whole joint.

We first met in 2000, as the famous Bush vs. Gore presidential election had just begun to heat up.  I had become (by default) the Chairman of a very small (three people) chapter of the College Republicans on campus, and Aaron became, as I recall, member number four.  He immediately got to work helping me with the organization, took a leadership role, and helped plan standouts, canvassing, protests, and election day get out the vote efforts.  By the time election day came, we had grown the organization to about 250 members.  There’s no way I could have done that without him.

When President Bush was inaugurated in Washington D.C. in January, Aaron was part of a crew of about fifteen of us who made the trek to the nation’s capital to witness the rather historic occasion.  We (foolishly) stayed in a hotel in Capitol Heights, Maryland that quite literally had a blood stain outside of our door.  When we opened the door to where we were staying, we found three guys playing Nintendo 64, who then bolted.  Didn’t instill confidence, but somehow, it didn’t phase him in the least.

I shared a hotel room with Aaron and a couple others that night (email me if you want a funny story about the other two people).  That night was the first day I became aware of his struggle with Cystic Fibrosis.  For those who aren’t aware of the condition, CF affects (among a number of other problems) a person’s ability to breathe.  People with CF experience clogging of the airways due to mucus build-up, and frequently have to fight off lung infections.

Aaron had a machine to help him breathe as he slept on that trip.  In my experiences with him before this, I heard him cough a great deal, and his voice always seemed to sound as though he was fighting a cold, but I had no idea about his struggle.  Somehow, the next day at the inauguration, Aaron was able to survive and prosper despite the January temperatures, freezing cold rain, and miserable winds.  The weaker among us, such as the entirely healthy Jessica Nickerson (hi Jess!), fell into a deep and prolonged illness for days.  But not Aaron.  He thrived.

I had convinced Aaron to move beyond his involvement on ROC and actually join the University of Maine Student Government by becoming a student Senator shortly thereafter.  I had been involved in the group since I arrived on campus, and in September of 2001 I ended up becoming the President of the Senate when another leader quit.  Little did I know when I recruited him, but Aaron would become the University of Maine’s own “Lion of the Senate”, he spent the rest of his college career involved in Senate in one way or another.

In 2001, I ran for a full term, and Aaron decided to challenge me.  You would think that something like that would put a strain on a friendship, but if you can believe it, spending all that time arguing with each other and campaigning against each other actually made our friendship stronger.  In the end, I beat Aaron by sixteen votes.  Sixteen.  If I hadn’t bribed all those people to vote for me, he’d have won.  (Totally kidding.  I didn’t have enough money back then to bribe anyone.)  Don’t worry though, I made him wait (I ran for a third term also), but Aaron got his chance to do the job once I left the University of Maine.

Instead of getting upset at missing out by such a narrow margin, Aaron simply rededicated himself to service to his fellow students.  And he took it seriously, this wasn’t a resume booster for him.  He actually cared.  This became the hallmark of who he was as a person, sacrificing his own time, effort and money, to help others.  He didn’t disappear, we actually saw him more.  He wasn’t bitter, he was cheerful.  He brightened the lives of everyone in the organization, and never can I recall anyone saying a single bad word about him.

The only time I ever had a bad word to say about Aaron Sterling, was when he was too obtuse to recognize that I was saving a seat for a girl I liked who was in Senate when we went to Pat’s Pizza on Tuesday nights, sitting in it himself.  He actually may be responsible for my never actually asking that girl out.  (I’m glaring at you right now, Aaron)

In 2003, Aaron’s condition forced him to stop attending college.  His lungs were deteriorating quickly, and it became clear that he would not be able to survive unless his dying lungs were replaced.  He and I were in many classes together, and I remember when I would no longer see his face or hear him arguing with his professors.  I learned that Aaron was going to be going through a dangerous, but necessary, lung transplant.  The story of the transplant is a remarkable one, with both his brother Tyler and a friend of his father’s donating.  I was in a class with Tyler at the time, and I still remember his last class before going under the knife.

The lung replacement gave Aaron a new lease on life.  He began to thrive.  He weighed almost nothing, but beefed up significantly as he began to feel healthier.  We were all thrilled that it was such a success, and were very pleased when Aaron was able to return to school in 2004.

Aaron and I would both join the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity later in our college careers.  Usually, people join up in either their freshman or sophomore year, but both Aaron and I ended up doing so much later.  This became yet another place where I witnessed his selflessness, his altruism, and his genuine decency.  Always the first to volunteer, always the first to lend a hand, even though he was usually the one who was least able to.

And I still remember when Aaron met Kellie Pelletier, who would end up becoming the love of his life.  Good lord he wouldn’t shut up about her.  I think that a lot of us who called Aaron friend were very thankful that he found somebody who found his particular personality traits charming.  It gave us a break from him giving us a hard time and calling us out on our own stupidity.

Kellie and Aaron showed all of us what true love really is.  Aaron and Kellie not only stayed together in times that would have ripped others apart, but they grew closer.  They provided love and support for one another in the darkest of dark times, and reading her constant updates on Aaron’s condition at the end became heartbreaking.  This morning I read the quiet agony of the woman who loved Aaron, in just a very short status update on Facebook:

Aaron isn’t going to make it through the day and maybe not the next few hours. My heart is breaking into a million little pieces. How do I go on without him?

Do me a favor and think of a person whose immediate and untimely departure from your life would make you fundamentally question your ability to go on.  Did you think of someone?  Hold on to that person for dear life no matter what difficulties there may be in your life, and don’t ever let them go, no matter who it is.

But true love is deeper than who you don’t think you can lose.  True love is devotion.  I think the better question would have been how Aaron could have gone on for as long as he did without the love and support of such a remarkable human being as Kellie.  The hearts of all of Aaron’s friends are breaking right along with Kellie’s, and there is nothing any of us could say that would make things better.

For me, her words struck to the very core of me.  To think of what devotion is, what true love is, and what the realities of life are really about, has been consuming my mind all day.  We spend our days and pour all our energy into so much superficial garbage, and in so doing we miss what life really is.

Everything I have ever thought was “hard” in my life now seems inconsequential in retrospect.  I have complained about moving, losing a job, having to make a difficult decision, being broke, and not getting what I want in a variety of situations.  What childish nonsense.  Thinking about what he faced on just a single day, let alone a lifetime, should make such feelings disappear.

What matters in this life is keeping those you love close to you and not letting people who you care about leave your life.  You always think there will be time, but even if there is, the time you spend apart from those you love is time you miss, and will never get back.

After I left the state of Maine in 2006, I am ashamed to say that I didn’t see Aaron anywhere near as often as I would have liked to.  We kept in touch.  We would email often.  I saw him a number of times.  We talked on the phone from time to time.  I would raise money for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation as often as I could (most hilariously, through Twitter), and he even helped me write in the early days of my blogging.

The last time I saw him was at least a year ago in Union Station as he and Kellie were traveling from North Carolina back home to Maine.  We had a wonderful lunch together, and caught up on life.  Had I known that would be the last time I would have seen him, I would have given him all the money in my bank account to change tickets and stay longer.

To say Aaron had an impact on my life would be one of the biggest understatements I have ever spoken.  He had every reason to hate life, and be cynical.  He, more than anyone, had a reason to act out, give up, play the victim and wallow in depression.  None of us would have blamed him.

But he never did.  Life dealt him an unfair hand, and Aaron beat the house.  In his very short time on this earth, Aaron Sterling inspired me, he made me laugh, he made me think, and he gave me a deep appreciation for the gifts life has given me.  And in death, he has inspired me to deeply consider my life.

I hate platitudes about death, and illness.  People always say that our friends who face terminal conditions are “brave” for facing their illness, but such sentiments have always sounded cheap and fake to me.  They are things that we who grieve say to make ourselves feel better.  The sick have no choice, when they face death, but to face it and try to beat it.  That takes will and maturity, but they have no choice, and bravery is in facing difficult things when you have the ability to take the easy path and not face them.

Well, at the risk of making myself a hypocrite, Aaron Sterling showed me what bravery truly is, and in the end, he won.  He was brave because he faced his own mortality, faced death, and smiled back at him.  He didn’t have to do that.  He won because his disease never broke him.  It never beat him.

He lost the battle, but won the war.  Cystic Fibrosis killed his body, but in his time with us, he has fundamentally changed who we are, and because of that, he will live on.  I will carry with me what he taught me about life, friendship, and love for the rest of my life.  How many of us believe we will have that kind of an effect on those around us when we pass?  Certainly not I.

I can only hope that in the remaining time I have on earth, my life is half as consequential as his.

Breathe easy, my friend.

If you have any financial ability to contribute, anything at all, I would like to recommend a donation to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.