It was late that evening in 1999. The landline rang, and back then, when it was late and the phone rang, you picked it up. It was the painter Donald Baechler on the phone, my close friend Chris Kelley’s mentor and sometimes employer. Donald is not a loquacious man. He just said, “There was an accident, Chris is at St. Vincent’s Hospital, you better come tonight.”
By the time Libby and I got to New York City from Philly we knew Chris was in a coma, and that his prospects didn’t look good. A ragtag bunch of downtown art kids sat shell-shocked in the waiting room. I bought a little green set of rosary beads and put them in my friend’s hand. After all, he was the only member of my wedding party the year before who knew all the responses at Mass. Chris died.
We made it to a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn to finally get some sleep. Matt worked for the artist William Wegman, who upon hearing of the death of Chris, a 25-year-old hotshot curator, shook his head, and said “Not again.” Wegman had lived through the deaths of many young brilliant people during his youth in the 1980s, and here it was again.
Last week, my 26-year-old friend and Federalist colleague Bre Payton became suddenly ill and slipped into a coma. As fate would have it, Libby and I were once again journeying from Philly, where we spent Christmas, back to New York. Not long after we got back, my cell phone rang. It was my boss, Ben. Ben and I don’t spend a lot of time chatting on the phone, so I knew what the call meant. Before I answered, I thought of Chris. I thought of that night 20 years ago, and this time, as a man on the wrong side of 40, I thought, “Not again.”
In many ways Bre Payton and Chris Kelley could not have been more different, Chris was a hard-drinking and drug-using art scene star, known for shows with his young cadre of painters paired with more established artists. He often showed up to openings in a bathrobe. In a lot of ways, he was a mess. Bre was not a mess. Bre was a shockingly beautiful and put together person. She was impressive, and in some sense the leader of a group of young conservative women who were taking Washington DC by the horns, just as Chris had wrangled the New York art scene.
That is where the two meet in my mind. The work. How hard they worked, how impossibly hard they worked, and how much that work meant to them. After Chris died, the people who had worked with him, all older than us kids, kept talking about his work, planned to posthumously publish his final essay. I found it grotesque at the time. This was my friend, he was more than work — he was late-night drives down the shore, he was a reassuring voice, he was the guy who wanted to go back and find the dealer who beat us on a beat bag of coke and hit him with a beer bottle.
I knew Bre socially. She was always fun and vivacious, but we were not close personal friends. We were coworkers, and over the past several years it was rare that a day went by when I didn’t see an email from Bre on some issue or other. Working at an outlet with Bre was like playing Hungry Hungry Hippo with the Flash. By the time you got your laptop booted up she had filed two stories and was working on a third. You were lucky if there was a story left.
It was Chris all over again. I often used to say that Chris Kelley was the only person in whose shadow I would willingly stand. I have something of an ego, but there was just such joy in being in his orbit, watching him operate and succeed. It gave me so much hope. I saw that same thing in how her contemporaries viewed Bre. I also see it in the stories since her passing. So many have been about her going out of her way to help others who were coming up. That’s a big, big deal. It’s hard to enough to find success; to also find time to help others get there is a truly remarkable thing.
My heart breaks to think of what Bre’s young friends are going through. I remember it, I hate it, and it’s everything dark and terrible. It is a dream become nightmare. These are the events that dim the sparkle in young eyes, which afterwards cast a colder eye on life and death. A friend and inspiration gone too beastly soon. I cannot in good conscience say that the pain will get better, although it may dull.
I can, however, offer some solace from my own experience. There will come times in your life when you are faced with a challenge or opportunity, and you think to yourself, “I can’t do it,” or “This isn’t for someone like me,” or “I’m not good enough for this.” And there will be a voice, a face, gently mocking you, reminding you that the world is out there, so you grab onto it. It will be Bre, just as it has been Chris for me. I promise you this will happen, because I do know of such things.
In his final, posthumously published essay, Chris Kelley wrote, “Let no one compare one’s pain with another’s, let no one ask that question, the nightmare lasts for a night and then the day comes to save you like a mother to her child. Did you think that one person could matter? There is a sea of faces, a torrent of loss, in every day of the year. Loss is intertwined with life as with youth and beauty: nothing lasts, nothing stays the same.”
I hate to quibble with my dear, long-gone friend, especially as he can’t defend himself, but he is slightly wrong here. Some things do last. The work lasts. His did, in works still being made by artists influenced by his ideas, and Bre’s work lasts too. In two of the most tumultuous years in recent memory, hers was a voice of reason and kindness, a clarion call to respect, something we can all aspire to.
I’m going to miss Bre; she gave me so much hope. But it is not enough to miss her. It is far more important to live by her example. I will try.