When I think about Ben, I think about joy. I think about laughing. And laughing and laughing. I think about the way he made me feel. Comfortable. Confident. Beautiful.
I met Ben in college, spring semester my junior year and his freshman year, after I’d come back from a semester abroad in Prague, obnoxious in my newfound love of Eastern European cinema and disdain for domestic beers. I don’t know that I would have wanted to be friends with myself in January of 2006, god only knows why Ben did, but I’ll be the lifelong beneficiary of that trademark openness.
The story we told everyone is that we met dancing on a table at a frat party after each complimenting the other on their outfit and in that moment declaring ourselves best friends. I doubt this is completely true, but I do know for sure that I heard about Benton Ferguson before I actually ever met him, or more likely sought him out.
Senior year was a blast, mostly because of Ben. My other roommates in our apartment had boyfriends, but I had Ben and Ben brought the party…even when we weren’t around. I remember coming home one night and finding, compliments of Ben, half of that year’s dance ensemble cast and possibly some members of the visiting Royal Shakespeare Company in our living room singing along to the Scissor Sisters at the top of their lungs. There were lots of costumes, lots of cocktails and lots of questionable decisions made with zero fear of judgment or regret.
This whole time we were up to our ears in essays for our English major, but Ben could actually write his own creative content worth reading outside of some of obscure seminar. He also painted. And danced. And sang a cappella exceedingly well. When people say the entire campus was in love with Ben, they’re not exaggerating. My mom recently pointed out that she only met Ben once, and it was when I graduated and refused to leave campus without seeing him. And that when I finally found him it was the longest hug she had ever seen me give because growing up, I was never a hugger. Ben changed that.
Later, Ben came to live with me and Sami Jarrah in Portland for a summer. That summer is, without question, the most fun, free, and generally celebratory of my life. Ben was writing and interning some, I was looking for jobs, and getting my yoga teacher’s certification. Let’s just say we had not really fully transitioned into adulthood and were in no hurry to get there.
When he first landed in PDX, Ben texted to say he’d changed into skinny jeans in the airplane bathroom. We hosted a party at our apartment that night with the most ragtag group of Portlanders, then went out to a bar, or several bars and ended up eating breakfast at a 24 hour diner where Ben brought his new friend Cody. Cody was a dancer. An…exotic dancer? Ok, he was a stripper. But a stripper with a heart of gold, who loved to read and of course Ben had somehow figured this out. This was night one. The rest of the summer played out accordingly.
We’d go to yoga and then immediately afterward go to happy hour at a bar that only served ridiculously flavored martinis. I once spilled an entire Nalgene of water on his laptop after one too many of said martinis. He didn’t get mad. He didn’t even flinch. He just laughed as if he wasn’t at risk of losing years worth of work and music and photos and blow dried his computer and took it to the Apple store the next day where they were miraculously able to revive it.
I found an email from that summer where he pointed out that we won at bar trivia one night because the host had a crush on him and kept changing the topics to things like “Alabama,” “Southern Literature” and “Vive La France!” — all things Ben specialized in.
We went on an insane camping trip to Hart Mountain in Southern Oregon where Ben packed just skinny jeans, flip flops and a t-shirt screen printed with the name of our college’s literary journal.
I went to see Ben last June while he was getting radiation treatment in Houston. Again, I was between jobs, this time only for a week. We cooked. We listened to music. We tried out different scarves and methods for head wraps. He had much more of a knack for it than I did. We did yoga, gentler now. We watched all of season 2 of Orange is The Black, only taking breaks to go to the hospital once a day, where he pointed out, “Hey, at least we get free valet parking.”
We talked a lot about how he was feeling in the moment, we talked some about what he was thinking, but we avoided talking directly about the prognosis for his particular type of cancer, which we both knew was not good.
The last night I was there, we watched a movie called Another Earth. Ben had already seen it, but said he wanted to watch it again. It’s not a perfect movie, mostly because it asks you to believe the beautiful Brit Marling would ever work as a janitor. More believably, it also asks you to consider the notion, that there is, somewhere, somehow another earth that’s exactly like the one we currently inhabit, with just one or two things slightly altered. In the movie, that one thing is that maybe Brit Marling didn’t cause a horrific car crash. As we watched, I couldn’t help but think that in my version, there’d be another earth where Ben didn’t have cancer, where Ben doesn’t die a day after his 28th birthday.
And I still kind of think that. I’m not what you’d call a person of faith, and my rational brain can’t really wrap itself around the idea that Ben is gone. As I told a friend after I heard the news, who knows if I’ll ever get married, but when I think about my hypothetical dream wedding, the groom is a question mark, but Ben is there for sure, dancing the night away at the reception.
Within 24 hours of Ben passing away, I’ve received texts and notes from high school friends, grad school friends, friends of ex-boyfriends, people I completely forgot would have ever even known or crossed paths with Ben. But so many of them have. Friends from home who visited Davidson and met Ben once have never forgotten him. Old roommates of mine post-college have gone on to have their own full and rich friendships with Ben.
And that’s just within my tiny circle of acquaintances. Multiply that out, and there’s a reason the Google doc where people can share memories for Ben’s family is now in excess of 40 single-spaced pages.
There are so many stories I’m leaving out, including the six months I lived in New York and Ben, who was once like my little brother, became my savior in the city. I lived in Williamsburg because Ben lived in Williamsburg. Hangovers were cured at Jimmy’s Diner in Greenpoint because Ben knew to take me there. An entire mini college reunion was organized around Ben’s birthday, almost two years ago to the day.
I also recorded a short interview with Ben in New York. This was back when I was just getting into radio and had the shockingly original idea to start a podcast using subpar recording techniques. I only ever made three episodes, but naturally one of them was with Ben.
At the time, of course, we couldn’t have known. We talk about the supernatural, we talk about death and life after death, we laugh at my misunderstanding of a song I thought was just about a road trip, but is clearly about a funeral. Ben sounds classic Ben. That is to say thoughtful, funny, and wise beyond his years.
I held off re-listening to this conversation for a long time after Ben’s diagnosis for fear it would make me too sad, too angry. But I finally did, and felt better the instant I heard Ben’s laugh. That laugh that contains limiteless joy, that laugh that I leave as my radio legacy to the world. It’s the best thing I ever recorded.
When he was speaking about the movie and the character Powder, Ben says, “He makes communication happen between things that normally wouldn’t be able to. And it’s really beautiful.”
Time after time, Ben made communication happen with me when I was closed off to everyone and everything else. And I know I’m not alone in this experience. With Ben, every meeting was an opening, an opportunity, a chance to revel in life’s small wonders. We can carry that forward. And it really is beautiful.
If you’ve made it this far, and if you knew Ben, or even if you didn’t, please consider donating to Ben’s memorial at Davidson.