We were near the front of the line at the concert gate when Pierce, my roommate of two years – a self-proclaimed "raging douchebag" (but loveable) – asked me the question I knew was coming.
"Man, you wear that ugly-ass Cubs hat everywhere. I can understand wearing a hat that represents one hundred years of total failure to your calculus final, but this is going to be the greatest concert you've ever been to. Why jinx it?"
"The hat's not that ugly," I said with a grin.
I turned around to give the usher my ticket. As much as I love the guy, he wouldn't have understood anyway, just like he didn't understand why I raised it into the air during the last song.
The hat's illustrious history begins with the buyer. His name was Barney O'Donnell, and at the ripe old age of 101, was the last living person who was present for the Cubs victory at the 1908 World Series – he was eight years old at the time, and remained a die-hard fan for the rest of his life.
He had tickets to every subsequent Cubs game. He didn't miss one: not during the Depression, not during World War II, and not even during the aftermath of 9/11, which scared half of the city of Chicago into basements. Given his dedication, it's easy to see why a little bit of "pain in the ribs" wouldn't convince him to stay home for a day – which, in the heat, led to the heart attack that left him dead in the stands. Everybody who knew him said it was the way he would have wanted to go.
I never actually met Barney; the only time I ever saw him was at his showing. I went to school with his granddaughter, Kathleen – I was in second grade at the time – so my mom dressed me up and dragged me out to the Dunnway & Marra funeral home, despite my protests that I didn't know her very well.
"Alexander Nicholas, that is enough," she replied. "She'll appreciate that you're there. She knows you, and you'll be one of the only people she knows there who isn't sad today. So offer it up."
Those words were enough to keep me silent for the entire trip to the funeral home. Well, those words and the fact that not even four days earlier she and I had been in a fight, over Pokémon of all things.
"Rapidash is a girl. I know so because she's pretty," she had said.
I knew better though. Even though I thought her brown eyes were cute, she was totally wrong about Pokémon, and I would not stand for that.
"Rapidash can be both. The guidebook says so!"
Ha. I had her. There was no way she could come back to that.
"Are you a dummy?" she asked. "Boys aren't pretty. So Rapidash is a girl."
"You're wrong," I shot back, "and you're the dummy."
So she bit me.
Ten minutes later she was in the principal's office, and I was bleeding in the nurse's station.
That was actually how we met.
So, on the way there, I was understandably nervous. Being in second grade, I really didn't have any idea what to say. During the tearful, hushed hellos, I stood in my mom's shadow for as long as I could; after ten minutes, I began to believe that I might be able to make it out without an awkward confrontation. Of course, as soon as I thought it, my mom said, "Why don't you go talk to Kathleen? I saw her over there a little while ago."
I followed her finger to a particularly dismal corner of the room, and sure enough I saw Kathleen's untamed black hair sticking out against the white wall, looking fresh-off-the-boat Irish. I recognized her older brother, Bobby, sitting next to her. His eyes were puffy and swollen, and on his lap he held a road-worn Cubs cap with a white-knuckle grip.
Being an avid Cubs fan myself (even as young as I was), I was curious as to why he was so attached to the hat. So curious, in fact, that by the time I finished the thought, I found myself in front of Kathleen, without anything to say.
She sniffled and blinked, but said nothing, so I said the first thing that came to my mind.
"Umm, hi Kathleen."
Good job, Alex. Really good.
Did I mention that she was cute?
"Hi," she said, and sniffled again.
"Sorry I bit you the other day," she said. "I was being mean, and you were right. My brother showed me his guide book. Rapidash can be a boy."
"Right Bobby?" she asked.
He just turned around, and shifted the Cubs hat on his lap. A tear rolled down his face.
"Let's go downstairs to where the food is," Kathleen said.
She stood up and started walking, so I followed.
"What's that hat your brother's holding?" I asked on our way down the stairs.
"It was my grandpa's," she replied. "He saw the Cubs win the World Series when he was eight."
"Wait, you like the Cubs?" I asked excitedly, trying my best to keep my voice down. "I love the Cubs!"
"Oh yes!" she said. "Now I'm really sorry I bit you. We should be friends instead."
And we were friends after that. We talked about Pokémon; we played tag at recess; we watched Cubs game after Cubs game together; we experienced general awkwardness; and, at the end of our freshman year of high school, we finally started to date – much to my delight. Even as wonderful as our childhood friendship was, my crush on her had never gone away.
And through it all, that old Cubs hat was there. Kathleen's entire family – along with Wrigley, their dog – would watch the Cubs games with us, which of course included Bobby. He hardly ever took that hat off. It got muddy, wet, torn, faded, and stained. Still, every time they turned on the porch TV, there was Bobby with the last cap that had ever been worn by someone who was there to see the Cubs win it all.
That was what we did, and I loved it. I got to watch sports with my freshman girlfriend – how many married men can say that? The days just ran together, for the most part.
There was one day that sticks out in particular, though. After one seriously embarrassing Cubs loss in the 2007 season, we took a walk. Kathleen had been quiet and subdued throughout the game, which was unusual for her.
"So, you know how I went to the doctor's office last month?" she began.
My mind started racing. Could someone get pregnant from making out?
"Yeah," I said, as calmly as I possibly could. "Did something happen?"
She stopped, looked down the street for a moment.
"You can't tell anyone."
"I won't," I said.
"I mean it."
"I do too," I said.
"Alex, I have cancer."
I never really understood what the phrase "world falling to pieces" meant until that moment. I don't remember much from the rest of the day, but I know I tried to put on a happy face for her.
Apart from her family and me, no one knew that she was ill for a very long time. But, everything else that could have possibly gone wrong did: they caught it late, it had spread to more than one area, and they couldn't operate on it. The drugs didn't work well either. Still, she bought four sizes of wigs that she would change so that people would think she was still growing out her hair and getting it cut. She made up excuses for missing school when she had to. I had to watch all of it, and the worst part was that I felt like I couldn't do anything.
Her family and I tried several times to convince her to let the community help, but she wanted nothing to do with it.
"I don't want their fucking sympathy," she said after one particularly intense intervention. "It makes me want to puke more than those stupid drugs."
She began to win us over though, one by one. She got Bobby on her side first. Despite the fact that he was one of the smartest people I've ever met, he decided to stay in-state for school, so that he could stay with his family. At the end of our sophomore year, Kathleen convinced him to transfer to Stanford on the scholarship he received there. I had been invited over for dinner.
"I know you're only staying here because of me," Kathleen said to Bobby, "which is why you keep avoiding me whenever I try to talk about it."
Bobby didn't say anything. He just kept eating his mashed potatoes.
"Go to Stanford. You're letting this hold you back. What could possibly make you think this will make anyone happy, least of all me?"
Bobby still didn't say anything.
Kathleen left her seat and went to her room; Bobby followed. Her dad excused himself to the living room and beckoned his wife to follow. So, I followed Bobby to Kathleen's room and listened through her door.
"I have the rest of my life to go to school. I don't know how long I'll have with you. You're more important."
"Please, Bobby. Go. Call me every night if you have to, but go. It doesn't help me watching you waste your opportunities."
"Kathleen, I can't…"
"Of course you can. Go. Have fun. Be a surgeon. Do it."
And through the door I knew she smiled.
"… Fine," Bobby said. "I'll go."
"I want you to be happy if you go. How do I know you aren't just going to make me happy?"
"How about I give you this?"
The next day, Kathleen wore the tattered Cubs hat on her head, and her smile was brighter than it had been in a very long time. Bobby was accepted to Stanford at the end of the month. She won me over that day too, and her parents followed shortly.
It wasn't until just after winter break our senior year that Kathleen finally had to be hospitalized. Then, the truth came out. And with the truth came the sad realization that we tried our best not to talk about: she was getting worse.
I visited her just about every day. I even got a job at the hospital during the spring because I was there so often. We talked about normal things. When Kathleen was feeling well, the nicer nurses would give us some time alone. And of course, we watched the Cubs games.
She never took that hat off, either. It was her favorite thing in the world.
I visited Kathleen the day after graduation; I was excited because her doctor said she was getting better. But what she said to me was beyond strange and completely unexpected.
"Do you want my hat?" she asked.
"My hat, dummy."
She pointed to the Cubs logo on the top of her head.
"Do you want it?"
"Why?" I asked. "You love that thing."
"I just have a feeling," she said, waving her hand. "It's not a big deal. Besides, aren't you going to the game next weekend?"
It was true, so I took the hat. I didn't question it if I thought it would make her happy.
Two weeks later, Kathleen died, and I understood.
Two-and-a-half years later I had moved on. Instead of carrying her ghost on my shoulders, it walked next to me, and my memories of her brought me nothing but joy – just like she always did in life.
Some people like to think the hat represents one hundred years of failure; I like to think it means four years of unstoppable strength from my hero, my first love, my best friend.
And Pierce could never understand why I raised that hat – what better tribute than "the greatest concert of my life"?