The mahogany coffin faced an audience of hundreds packed into the gymnasium at Deering High School in Portland. Two tables full of pictures flanked each side, draped with purple and white tablecloths – Deering’s colors.
It was a touching and fitting memorial for Brendan Conway, who spent so many hours inside that gym wearing those colors, first as a high school athlete and later as a basketball coach.
Conway, who also was a local real estate agent and former athletic director, died Thursday while playing pickup basketball. His family has said it assumes he had an undiagnosed heart condition. An autopsy conducted by the state Medical Examiner’s Office had not been completed by Tuesday.
The 34-year-old’s death shocked his close-knit family and friends, who remembered a playfully mischievous young man, a gentle soul who believed deeply in helping others. On Tuesday, about a dozen of those closest to Conway walked to a lectern near his casket inside the gym and addressed the larger community that gathered to say goodbye.
His sister-in-law, Jo Conway, told a story about a voicemail she received from Brendan when she got engaged to his brother. It was a good-natured warning that he was going to “come at her hard,” now that she was family. She said the support the family has seen since his death has been immeasurable.
“He was not just our Brendan,” she said. “He was yours as well.”
His father, Jerry Conway, said his son had “an immense emotional depth.” The elder Conway urged everyone who listened intently Tuesday, especially the young people, to “be resolved to make something of this. To pay more attention to friends and family. To give more attention to kids. To lead lives of greater integrity.”
His mother, Nazare Conway, spoke to her son briefly in Portuguese – a personal message just for him.
His brother, Patrick, worried about being able to speak about his brother’s death. It was one of those times when he would have looked to Brendan for guidance if he could. He talked about how he looked up to his brother for the unpretentious way he lived his life.
“He was not the type to orient his life around accomplishments,” Patrick said. “His real genius was not in the actions that draw easy praise; it was the small, day-to-day things that often went unnoticed.”
His aunt, Trudy Conway, said Brendan “radiated joy.”
“He saw the spark in children, and he fanned the flame in them as only someone with a beautiful soul can do,” she said.
Trudy said Brendan’s last words before he lost consciousness while playing basketball last week were not “Let’s stop the game” but “I need a sub.” The game went on.
His longtime friend Ben Theriault quoted from Anna Quindlen’s “A Short Guide to a Happy Life.” He talked about turning off the cellphone and connecting with people in a genuine way. He said life is precious, and Conway knew that, and that no one sitting in the audience should take it for granted.
Another longtime friend, Jesse Connolly, remarked how Conway had served as best man at four weddings, including his.
“I feel lucky just to be invited to weddings,” Connolly said.
And his girlfriend of six years, Lauren Reid, talked about how lucky she was to have that time with Conway.
“With all this pain and hurt, my heart is still full,” she said.
She encouraged everyone in the room to spend as much time as possible with the ones who matter. She told the young people whose lives he touched that if Conway taught them anything, it was to pay it forward.
She read from the Maya Angelou poem “When Great Trees Fall”:
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
Then Reid walked to Conway’s casket and kissed the top of it.
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: