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  • Writer's pictureAlex George Pickering

The Long Goodbye

Updated: Jun 30, 2023

A lesson in loss from the passing of my dear friend, Kevin Long.

It was January of 2007. I was only a year and some change out of college when I began my new adventure in California—more specifically, as a recipient of admission to the USC Film & Television Production MFA Program. On the dime of Sallie Mae and into the refuge of my aunt’s quaint apartment in the heart of Hollywood, a place I knew well from an internship a few summers prior, I uprooted my life in the greater Boston area for three more years of education and the promise of success that came with it. During that first whirlwind orientation week, I was shuffled from mixer to mixer, soaking in the SoCal sun that never seemed to sleep while assuaging my anxieties with (probably a few too many) stress-reducing cocktails. I was in a strange new land, for a new and exciting purpose. It was a time and place full of possibilities. But unlike the eastern cities of my past, I was scarcely acquainted with my new locale. With the exception of my aunt, Los Angeles was to me a city of strangers.

At one such USC icebreaker, I happened upon a dark-haired young man in a colorful shirt and sport coat, not unlike my attire save the flamboyant scarves I typically donned at the time. A mutual friend would later tease how much we resembled the Night at the Roxbury duo in those days. But unwitting clothing coordination aside, we shared something even more pressing in common. Like an elementary schooler bonding with the neighborhood kid over their latest toy, a ten minute conversation with this gent was enough to learn that he not only possessed a Nintendo Wii (the latest game system of the time), but a rich history with every major console prior, from the original NES through the Playstation 2. As we chatted more, I quickly unearthed other similarities, like our dry-witted, esoterically-nerdy and—perhaps a tad too—ribald sense of humor.

The name of that young man was Kevin Long.

Alex and Kevin in 2007

What followed was one of those rare and unexpected human connections that germinates from a passing conversation into an enduring, almost familial friendship. We saw movies together, coordinated our arrival times at USC parties and scheduled at least one or more monthly “Smash Nights,” an evening of gaming affectionately named after Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros.—though the double entendre for excessive drinking was probably deserved too! Kevin would later become the best man at my wedding, the Bill to my Ted. And even when he left California and moved back to Texas, we kept in regular contact through text messages, virtual Smash Nights and his occasional sojourn back to SoCal—the last of which was in June of 2022 for our mutual friends’ baby shower. Kevin even got to meet my newborn second son, Aidan, during that trip.

It would be the last time I’d ever see him again in person.

Kevin during his June 2022 visit

It was a Sunday night in late April of this year. I had just attended a film festival the night before to watch my students’ productions. My parents were also in town, and we had dedicated that evening to celebrating my mother’s birthday with a takeout dinner, custom cake and plenty of champagne. Needless to say, I was in great spirits.

Then, a surprise text message hit my phone around 10 PM. It was from a mutual friend of Kevin’s urging me to call him back ASAP. I instantly got a nauseating feeling in the pit of my stomach. Something felt off.

I took my phone into the bedroom and called him back. He answered promptly and got right to the point.

“Have you talked to Kevin’s parents?” he asked.

I told him no, as I didn’t even have their number.

“I think he passed,” he uttered in a harsh whisper, as if the words were too weighty to get out.

I gave him the most rhetorical of replies: “Are you kidding me?”

Deep down, I knew a prank that macabre was unlikely. What’s more—my friend had noticed postings on Kevin’s Facebook page from others confirming the news. Kevin had kept a low profile on social media at the time, which is why neither of us would have thought to ever check his page unless prompted to.

We spoke for another ten minutes, exchanging the sort of incredulous platitudes you might expect, taking wild shots at what might have happened and debating still the veracity of it all. If family members were mourning Kevin’s passing, it was undoubtably true, but I had to see it for myself. Upon ending our call, I immediately whipped out my laptop, my fingertips ferociously punching the necessary keys on my Chrome browser. And when Kevin’s page finally popped up, my heart sunk to the floor. There it was: three different tribute posts from cousins of the Long family. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a horrific possibility. It had become real.

As I shut my laptop to digest the news, loud, oblivious laughter echoed from the kitchen. My family was still enjoying a late dinner and preparing for their cake dessert. Now, I had the heavy task of coming back into the kitchen and telling them that my best friend had evidently passed on.

Kevin at our virtual "Smashgiving 2022" night

The next morning, I spoke with Kevin’s parents, having gotten their number from the cousins. (Evidently, they had sent me a message via Facebook with the news, but it was intercepted by the dreaded “Message Requests” firewall.) I had met them just a few times before, once at a shared dinner with my family when Kevin and I graduated USC, and another when Kevin packed up his Burbank apartment to move back to Texas. I always found them to be gracious, salt-of-the-earth kind of people, and now they were grieving the loss of their only child. It was one of the hardest conversations of my life, and I’m sure my condolences could never measure up to the severity of the moment. I also got at least some of the answers I was looking for: Kevin’s fight with depression had come to an end, and he was now at peace.

When I flew to Boerne, TX for the memorial, however, I was still left with so many unanswered questions. I didn’t have the heart to ask Kevin’s relatives the particulars about exactly how and when he passed. I just wanted to be there for them, as a bouncing board or a shoulder to lean on. When asked to give a speech, which would stream to hundreds of friends and family on top of the dozens in attendance, I made sure to keep it upbeat and unpretentious, focusing on the heartfelt and humorous. I spoke of the time Kevin ordered a Luigi (from Super Mario Bros.) costume that arrived ridiculously too tight, but he decided to wear it anyway on Halloween as the self-pronounced “Sexy Luigi.” I brought up our epic trips to Vegas and Puerto Rico. I recalled Kevin’s penchant for specially themed parties—from his World Cup soccer soiree to his posh “Fall Formals.” A good 80 percent of it might have even made for a best man wedding address. There would be a time and place to seek a greater understanding of this tragedy. This was simply a day to remember Kevin.

Weeks later, my mutual friends Mariana, Mike and Christina would help me put together a west coast memorial for Kevin at one of his favorite North Hollywood breweries, Lawless. It was a heartwarming night of swapping stories and toasting to memories as nearly forty of Kevin’s SoCal friends descended on this bar—as if we had all somehow ended up on the ethereal Lost island during its series finale. The refrain of the night was one of missed potential. “We need to do this more often,” I heard more than a handful of times. But pledges of future outings aside, there was another more pressing feeling permeating that evening, a sort of guilty reckoning: “I wished I had kept in better touch with him.” So many friends had fallen out of contact with Kevin for any number of reasons: his exodus back to Texas, everyday life distractions, Covid and the list went on. For me, on the other hand, there was an unpleasant irony to these confessions. Because I had kept in regular contact with Kevin, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of explaining, even justifying, why this tragedy couldn’t have been avoided. A certain question continued to follow me wherever I went: “Were there any signs?” It’s a well-meaning query, to be sure. And I don’t mean to demean or vilify those who at best are trying to help or at worst are simply curious. Still, the sheer volume of inquiries paid its toll. “Of course there weren’t,” I wanted to clap back. In fact, if someone had asked me how Kevin was doing two weeks prior to his passing, I would have answered thusly: “He’s in a great place, maybe even the best of his life. He has a new and fulfilling career as a software engineer, has enjoyed promotion after promotion and is even talking about buying a house”—nothing of which would have signaled a downward mental or emotional trajectory. A person planning on leaving this earth prematurely doesn’t typically make projections to the future. Only a hiccup with his depression meds over Christmas, in which he had reportedly lowered his dosage too rapidly, suggested anything out of the ordinary—and even that issue was well resolved by the time we spoke again in January.

A photo display from "A Tribute to Kevin Long: LA Drinks Night" at Lawless Brewery

This contradiction of ideas (Kevin’s seemingly auspicious outlook vs. the tragic outcome) contributed to several complex emotions in myself. I was deeply saddened in the beginning (and still am of course), but it was limited to only anguish, shock and confusion. Weeks later, another emotion would seep its way in, one that gave me a sense of shame for even entertaining the thought: anger. Not fiery enmity—no, no. This was a subtler soreness, perhaps even just a sense of deep frustration. I imagined what I would say to Kevin if I could speak to him one more time, the gist of which was an exasperated why. Why didn’t he reach out if he was feeling this way?—to me, to his parents or anyone else for that matter. Why didn’t he follow the advice he knew all along? In the past, he had always shared the peaks and valleys of his life with me, from his triumph as the editor of the Cameron Crowe documentary The Union, to his later disillusionment with the editing profession and decision to seek a new career back home (which he achieved as a software engineer). Not surprisingly, when others came to me to solve this same puzzle, I was at a loss. How could I provide the answers to questions that I couldn’t rationalize myself?

It’s for this reason that I began to think of Kevin’s passing as a “long goodbye” of sorts. His life ended with an ellipsis, with as much mystery as melancholy. This is not to say that someone dying of a gradual illness isn’t a sorrowful event, but there is a modicum of comfort in knowing the why and when of it. When death is sudden and inexplicable, it lingers with you. It’s harder to move on because a sense of closure remains elusive. Again, the question of why continues to haunt you. (And that the phrase “long goodbye” includes a pun with Kevin’s last name doesn't escape me either—not to trivialize the term. Kevin was always a fan of good puns.)

At the Lawless memorial, one of Kevin’s friends finally offered a theory to it all, which gave me a measure of peace. “Depression is one thing,” he said, having confessed to experiencing similar challenges, but there is also something else, a certain malaise, that many people keep to themselves in tandem with the depression. And it’s that unaccounted for pain (that the privileged majority of us will never have to suffer) that can push a person to their limits. Maybe there was a deeper undercurrent of despair that Kevin was always fighting against. Maybe there was an internal war at play, even as he put on the bravest of faces.

Before hearing this take, I had come to a similar, albeit incomplete, conclusion about this constant battle below the surface. In my toast at Lawless, I added a component to the summary of my Texas speech. In particular, I urged Kevin’s friends to understand that although he seemingly lost his battle to depression, “he kicked depression’s butt for 10 years.” I wanted to defend Kevin’s strength. I wanted others to understand that it’s easy to pass judgement on a person who loses one battle out of thousands, rather than applaud those other thousands of victories. Each day that Kevin woke up and went about his life was a win against the malaise within. Even day was a hard-fought victory against a constant pain—like the insufferable ringing of tinnitus or an endless migraine. That Kevin accomplished so much by age 39—namely two incredible careers and friendships all across the country—in spite of his psychological challenges, is almost a miracle in itself. As I’ve said many times before, he was the best friend you could ask for. The least we can all do, those who loved him most, is try our best to understand his decision without antipathy or judgement.

“Men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Henry Thoreau once said. It might just be that our darkest demons are not only the hardest to expunge, but to articulate as well. I can’t be upset with Kevin for shielding the world (and his closest friends and family for that matter) from this internal struggle when sharing it might have been both additionally painful and unnatural to him. Nor does that mean we should ever turn off our antennas when we discern despair in our friends and family. The lesson isn’t about futility in this case; the fight to save those you love is a must. But if the worst comes to pass, there is peace to be found in understanding that the why of it all will always be complex and enigmatic, even as we should continue to ask it. The conversation should be about both how they died and how they lived. Kevin was a pillar of strength in the face of immense adversity, a model to uphold and celebrate for those dealing with similar challenges so that the next life can be saved. And the next one after that and so forth.

As such, I’m hoping that this essay might persuade a few of you to donate to related initiatives. Here’s one in particular that can make a difference in a life today:

Or, at the very least, I hope I've given those who loved Kevin the same better understanding I've been seeking all along.

Until I see you again, rest in power, my dear friend Kevin. 🙏

Thanks for reading. This was one of my most difficult blogs to write, needless to say. Please as always feel free to offer your thoughts in the comments section below.

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1 comentário

01 de jul. de 2023

Alex, Thanks for sharing your heartfelt process toward understanding your dear friend Kevin with appreciation for his strengths and without judgment. I have learned a lot from your heartfelt process and from the thoughtful perceptions of Kevin's friends. With sympathy and prayers in your loss,

Aunt Nancy

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