Remembering Jordan Mermell
I can clearly recall Jordan once saying this to me: “It’s good for both of us that we’re friends. See, because being with you makes me seem smart, and being with me makes you seem cool.” It’s quite a thing for anyone to say out loud, let alone a 2nd-grader. Granted, part of him was obviously going for a laugh, but I knew him well enough to know that another part of him was also dead serious.
The word “cool” — and the concept of “coolness” in general — was something that would often come up with him, in ways that were unusually frank. Even as a toddler, he had a particular type of self-consciousness; he wanted not just to be liked, but for others to see him a certain way.
Here’s the thing though: over the course of our friendship, it became increasingly clear that he was, in fact, becoming extraordinarily cool: he would befriend older kids and even adults, getting them to speak with him like an equal; he was good at virtually every extreme sport that was dangerous and difficult; he had a natural sense of fashion and style; he was preternaturally successful with girls (although this one was true since as early as Kindergarten, no joke).
Did a “cool kid” like him and a little nerd like me seem like an odd pairing to be such close childhood buddies? Maybe from the outside, but from the inside, I always felt like a welcome part of his family. The rest of them were all sporty as well, and would take me on their outings — skateparks, wakeboarding, canoeing, etc., generally patient with me as I struggled to keep up. I once inexplicably biked directly into a bundle of branches on a bike path immediately after the rest of them had deftly avoided it without even slowing down (the whole “that one time Daniel decided to bite the tree” thing was a hard one to live past.)
I would summarize my early memories of their household growing up as “joyful and chaotic.” He was the oldest of three brothers, and all of them were boyish, fun, competitive, hyperactive and a bit nuts. Picture attempts at skateboarding-tricks indoors, diving into pillow forts, their little dog Stretch running around barking, music blasting, shouts from their parents about being careful from a few rooms away. An added fun for me was that they always had the latest toys and gadgets — super soakers, airsoft guns, video games (recalling those oddly memorable e-first-times Jordan and I shared, from witnessing our first disgustingly graphic Mortal Kombat fatality on SNES, up through our first full play-through of Halo coop-mode), all fueled by maniacal sugar-high energy from the sweets I never got at home.
As anyone who knew him will tell you, Jordan, throughout his life, went in and out of many of what we can only call “phases,” only some of which I really got to experience first-hand. He was — to varying degrees, and at different times — a skate punk, a white-boy rapper, a hipster artist, a Buddhist spiritual guru, a party animal, a surfer-bro, an aspiring lawyer, a devout, practicing Jew — the list, I presume, only goes on. The word “phases” doesn’t quite capture it though, nor does “hobbies” or even “passions”; each would come with a full-on transformation: a new look, style, musical taste, lexicon, even personal demeanor. These were obsessions, maybe “devotions.” His life journey was one constant self-experimentation, always trying new ways to feel more like himself.
He brought that same commitment — that same all-in energy — to his friendships. If he mattered to you — if he loved you — he made well-sure you knew it. He was loyal beyond loyal. He could be completely open and vulnerable about his fears and insecurities, and reflexively expected the same from me. There was always a frenzied physicality about him; when meeting up with him, he always immediately seemed to have something he was eager to tell you; when he laughed hard, he would tilt his head and literally start clapping in wide arcs; he’d throw his fists straight into the air when he was excited or “victorious”; he would run at you with straight arms spread out to give tight hugs.
He was always intent on sharing his adventurous, lust-for-life spirit with me, always trying to push me out of my comfort zone; if I look hard enough I can still see the scar from when I busted up my pinky finger from skateboarding down his driveway facedown, skeleton-style; I still sometimes find myself retelling stories of some of the weirder situations he got us into from messing with strangers in the neighborhood. Even now, somehow, he’s still doing it — getting me to dive into the Miami beach ocean for a surfing group’s “paddle out” memorial tribute, and wrap Tefillin on the beach with his former Rabbi (two things I certainly didn’t imagine I’d be doing as of a few weeks ago.)
Let me clarify the record on something: the modest side of his “you’re the smart one, I’m the cool one” dichotomy I alluded to at the start— while humble and kind to me, was also kind of bullshit. He was very smart, and he knew it. His mind always seemed to be firing on all cylinders; his imagination was wild (a friend reminded me of the bizarre stories he used to try to convince us of when we were very little; one involved invisible scorpions that lived in his backyard; another involved his special, personal relationship with the Florida Panthers. Just to really re-emphasize — we were very young). Since as early as I can remember, he was thinking hard and deeply about life’s most difficult questions — God, the nature of right and wrong, what it means to be a human. He loved to prod my geeky analytical brain about scientific philosophical questions — the origin of the universe, time travel paradoxes, etc. — as though I were secretly withholding some deep truths that he could get out of me if only he asked enough times, or asked just the right way.
From what I can gather, we stopped hanging out regularly around the end of middle school / beginning of high school. There was no negativity involved — no fight, no falling out — we just drifted apart, as childhood friends sometimes do. After that point I would only cross paths with him on rare occasions, each time seeing him in a strikingly different “phase” of his personal journey than the last. I would hear stories throughout the years — mostly second hand via mutual friends — of some his wilder escapades. These stories were often alarming, but I always couldn’t help but laugh. “Yes,” I’d think, “that does in fact sound like the Jordan I know.”
I managed to figure out when our last real encounter was; it was years ago now, over lunch in South Miami. I know we tried to reckon with the reasons we drifted apart, but can’t quite remember what exactly we concluded. What I may have said, and I would likely tell him now, is that he simply got too cool for me; I think that would have made him laugh.
It was an interesting conversation: he was deep in one of his “spiritual” modes — making very intense eye contact, asking deep, probing questions, being open and genuine to such an extent that it was throwing my off. Which is all to say: while (of course) it was wonderful catching up with him, it was also very clear to me at the time that we were simply on different wavelengths. I get a certain comfort in remembering this now — that our parting ways wasn’t arbitrary or simply due to careless neglect, but happened for perfectly organic reasons, and was really neither of our faults. We’d become different people. It happens.
There is of course, inevitably, the more painful side to this memory, which is the regret of not saying outright the things I wish I’d could have said, had I known it’d be my last chance. About the deep effect our time together had and will always have on me, how much I value those memories, and how much he’d always mean to me. I can only now hope that he knew — that I’d told him enough, and that whatever I didn’t say was sufficiently self-evident to both of us given all we’d been through.
I still don’t know the details of how exactly his life ended, and I’m not sure I’m ready to hear it anyway. I’m also unsure of how one is supposed to draw a clear line between a person’s mental health issues and the rest of their personality. So I won’t try to, and I’ll do the only thing I can do, which is to remember the full, sum-total of the person I knew: the person who lived big and bold, embraced life, was always seeking, who did nothing half-way, who seemed capable of anything and everything, who’s eyes were wide and full of joy, who brought me years of countless memories of fun, spontaneity, and pure love, and who managed to pack more experiences and deep connections with the many people he impacted in his 31 years than most do in lives that don’t get cut tragically short.
One more small, adolescent memory, even if only to end on a cheerier note:
We were in his yard with a stopwatch, seeing how fast each of us could sprint across his basketball court (this was early-internet days, kids; we had to be a bit creative with our fun). Needless to say, he was faster than I was, so the game quickly turned into seeing if each of us could top our own respective best times.
He was hitting a wall; he had an impressively fast sprint early on, and now after repeated attempts, he couldn’t seem to beat his own record. “Wait, I think these are actually slowing me down,” he said, and kicked off his shoes and socks. “Let me try again.” I timed his sprint; he still came up short of his best. “This is weighing me down too, let me go again” he said, and took off his shirt, threw it aside, and lined up for another sprint — reset, start, stop: again, coming short of his record. “Okay screw it,” he said, and before I knew it, he’d tossed all his clothed off and was standing there completely naked save for the silver chain around his neck — mind you, in broad daylight, in clear view of the public street and the neighboring houses.
I lost it. He was laughing too, but more-so still focused on the goal:
“Come on!” he was shouting at me, flailing his arms and jumping up and down. “I can beat my record time! Get ready — is the timer ready? I’m totally gonna beat my record time!” After catching my breath and wiping the tears from my eyes, I reset the stopwatch and put my finger on the start button.
He beat his record time.
We’ll always love you Jordan. Mahalo.