Greg Kevorkian was one of my oldest friends. Over the July 4th weekend in 2011, Greg took his own life. He was 2 months short of his 46th birthday. The voices inside his head had been screaming horrible thoughts for years, telling him to hurt other people. Ultimately, they convinced Greg to hurt himself instead. What a tragic waste of a beautiful human life.
I’ve known Greg since the 6th grade back at Swarthmore Elementary School. He arrived in Swarthmore only 1 year after I did. Greg and I had a lot of things in common: we were both from odd ethnic blends (Greg’s dad is Armenian and Mom is Finnish, my dad is Colombian and Mom is Ukrainian), we were both quick-witted (Greg much more so than I), and we both loved to watch movies and recite quotes from them endlessly. Excalibur. Scarface. Superman II. To this day, I think of Greg whenever I watch one of these movies or quote a line from them. Over the years, not a conversation went by without both of us interjecting these movie quotes at oddly appropriate times. How clever we both were!
As we moved through junior high and high school, Greg and I and our group of friends loved to play sports. We would often challenge our friends from Rutledge, the next town over (on the poor side of the tracks), to friendly games of baseball, football, and street hockey. The Swarthmore kids would usually win at football, which was always tackle football, and baseball. Street hockey was more hotly contested, with the boys from Rutledge winning their fair share of games. Greg and I enjoyed hockey the best, as this was the game we were the best at. Greg would play defense and I would play goalie. He really enjoyed being crafty with his stick, lifting his opponent’s stick with his own just as they were ready to take a shot. Greg called this one of his “Rid tricks,” named for the town of Ridley, two towns over and even more working-class than Rutledge!
In school, Greg was the classic cut-up artist. His clever, quick wit allowed him to be the class clown and make fun of everybody. Greg would cut you down to size whenever he felt like it, but I don’t believe he was ever mean-spirited about it. Greg just liked to be funny! This was especially true with nicknames. Greg had a nickname for everybody, and after a while you wondered if he even remembered anybody’s real name anymore. When Greg gave you a nickname, it stuck.
Greg gave me the nickname I still have to this day: Andy Panda. Only with Greg, he pronounced it Anda Panda, because that rhymed and was easier to say. At first, when I was walking down the hall and heard somebody yelling “Anda Panda!” behind me, I knew it was Greg. After a while, though, everybody in school started calling me that, so it was impossible to know who was calling my name without turning around.
Something changed in Greg when he went away to college. He started at Muhlenberg College in Allentown PA in the Fall of 1983 but only lasted there one year. After that he tried the local Penn State extension but didn’t fare much better there. Greg was having trouble at school, which was strange because he was a pretty smart kid. Something else was going on.
It was during this time that Greg started hanging out with an old high school friend, Steve. It was also around then that Greg started smoking pot. I found out later that Greg was battling schizophrenia and depression. Now I’m no expert, but I have to believe that marijuana and mental illness don’t mix well. He may have been dealing with this all of his life, but Greg really changed after he went away to college and returned home. He was no longer the quick-witted young guy I came to admire. Greg was now skittish, labored in his speech and was difficult to understand.
I remember visiting with Greg and his parents at the beach one year after he had changed. Jack and Leila Kevorkian were loving parents who would do anything for their son. However, as an adult in his 30s still living at home with his parents, Greg must have been a bit of a burden. His parents would never let on to this, and in fact they enjoyed having him around to help take care of the house and run his mom’s business, Swarthmore Finlandia, a wonderful little gift shop downtown. It was during this beach visit to their house in Lewes, Delaware that Leila confided in me how difficult it was seeing her son suffer. Greg and Jack were off running an errand, and I will never forget how Leila broke down in tears as she described her son’s schizophrenia to me and detailed how he was hearing voices in his head. This was heartbreaking to hear.
I didn’t see Greg much over the years since that beach visit. The two times I can remember both involved hockey. Greg and his dad came up for a visit to my house in Bethlehem to watch a Flyers vs. Rangers game on the big screen in my Tiki Lounge home theatre. They were both amazed how cool the game looked on a 108” TV screen! Later, Greg, Leila and Jack all came up to watch me play an ice hockey game in Allentown. Greg was so happy to see my play! They stayed for the whole game and I caught up with them afterwards. Greg would talk about that game and my performance (we won) for a long time after that night, bringing it up whenever he called me on the phone to chat.
Although I didn’t see him much over the last 10 years, Greg did call me on the phone fairly often, just to talk. During these conversations I could catch glimpses of the old Greg, especially when we would trade our well-worn movie references. These would still crack us both up! Unfortunately, most of these phone calls were difficult for me, as it was obvious that he wasn’t all there anymore. I now regret that I did not look forward to these calls, knowing that soon enough I would never get to hear from Greg anymore.
In retrospect, it wasn’t surprising that Greg’s life was cut short, but it was still a shock when I got the call from his parents telling me what had happened. It was a bit surreal attending Greg’s funeral. You never expect to bury one of your friends, especially when you’re both in your mid-40s. Jack and Leila asked me if I would be willing to say a few words during Greg’s funeral service, and I was honored to do so.
Besides Greg’s family, three friends got up and spoke during the service. First was Gwen, a friend he had made later in life when they were both battling depression. Gwen spoke beautifully, and her heartfelt stories of her time with her friend brought the tears flowing from everybody in attendance. Next up was Steve, Greg’s old high school friend I mentioned earlier. Steve told lots of stories about the time he spent with Greg both during high school and college, and he seemed to go on forever. Quite frankly, I tuned this part out, as I hold a grudge against Steve for introducing Greg to smoking pot and possibly exacerbating his schizophrenia and depression. I still do. In my opinion, Steve’s actions robbed Greg of his true personality and shortened his life. This may be an irrational anger, but it’s mine, and I will own it until somebody proves me wrong. I refused to speak with Steve during the reception after the funeral service.
Last but not least, I got up to say a few words about my deceased friend. I decided to fashion my talk into a conversation with Greg, as if he was standing right in front of me. I shared some of our stories from our 30+ years as friends, and I asked him some tough questions which of course he couldn’t answer. I don’t remember much of what I said, but I do recall a combination of joy and regret in the emotions I felt and shared during my talk. It must have gone well, as Greg’s family thanked me for my words afterwards, saying they felt as if he was actually there in the room.
Looking back, I’m happy to have had a friend like Greg in my life and choose to remember the good times as the bad fades into oblivion. I still keep in touch with Leila and Jack and always remember Greg’s birthday: August 31st. I either send him a birthday card or post a picture on Facebook to commemorate the occasion. I miss you, my brother, and I know you’re up in Heaven quoting movies with the angels and cutting up everybody you see with your quick wit. Just like in old times. Cheers, Greg.