By Aris Hovasapian
I turned 30 earlier this year. Many people mark that milestone as the last of their youth, and first of their old age, but to me, it didn’t matter much. I felt the same on my last day at 29 as I did on my first day at 30. I was at work on my birthday; I had no epiphanies, no discoveries, no depression, no sense of impending doom. It was just another day, governed by reason and logic, with no room for silly superstitions, just like the day before and the day after.
I suppose the most difficult aspect of crossing these types of milestones is that one gets that much closer to the end. It’s essentially a reminder of one’s mortality, and the short time we have here on this planet. But that never crossed my mind on my birthday. Logic and reason ruled the day.
I did have one indulgence. I invited some friends to a big dinner for my birthday: my treat. Everyone I invited was local, except for one couple. Even though I knew they wouldn’t be able to make it, I still asked Allen Yekikian and Sosé Thomassian to be there. Allen and Sosé went to Armenia in August to get married, and made the big decision to repatriate a few months later. They had a going-away party on February 1, and were already in Armenia by the time I sent out invitations. Sosé sent me a happy birthday message, and I sent her a message asking if she and Allen would be joining us for dinner, and her reply was to “Skype us in!” I knew she was joking, but now I wish I had. And I wish I had gone to their going-away party, where I justified my absence by the distance I would have had to drive, and because I had been at their wedding in Armenia. I sent them my regrets back then, and we mutually agreed that we would see each other when they came back to visit.
On May 10, Sosé and Allen were driving from Armenia to Georgia, and an auto accident claimed both their lives. I’ve spoken to several friends since finding out about this and it still does not seem real. Even as I write these words, it is as if I am working on a piece of fiction. But it is all too real. My friends are gone. And now the realization sets in that I am mortal, that I have only a short time here, that I must make the most of it. I’ve experienced the passing of family members and family friends, but never of someone that was my friend.
I don’t recall if I met Allen or Sosé first, but I knew them both before they connected with each other. I met both through my activities in the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF). Sosé was in the Orange County chapter, while Allen was in the Crescenta Valley chapter, where I was also a member. Both held various leadership positions, and also worked on centralized committees and programs.
To say that Allen and I did not get along would be a severe understatement. Allen never met a point he couldn’t argue, nor a short sentence he couldn’t turn into a paragraph. Allen and I had myriad spirited discussions, both in meetings and outside, ranging from practical to logistical to theoretical matters. Our arguments would often annoy other members, who would eventually tune us both out. Our personality clashes even spilled over into emails; I recently came across a highly vitriolic exchange between the two of us, and forwarded it to another friend who had tried to mediate the situation at the time. I remember thinking that I should send it to Allen as well, and that he would get a kick out of it now. I wish I had.
Allen and I eventually settled our differences. We were elected to our chapter’s executive, and Allen and I ended up having to ask the third person to resign. The adversity of having to make that request brought us closer together. Allen had also disagreed with me on a major issue in the very beginning of our term, and when it became clear later on that I was right and he had been wrong, it became the first and only time that Allen did not argue his cause. We went on to work very well together for that year, which was a surprise to both of us. We supported each other and believed in each other without question, and our work together in a volunteer organization helped us become friends after that experience.
I was proud to have Allen as a friend and as a member of AYF. I have never seen anyone work as hard as Allen did, even though he was in a leadership position. I have never seen anyone as aggressive and as shameless as Allen was when marketing or promoting something he believes in. His ability to focus was second to none.
Allen was working at Asbarez during this time, but he moved on to a non-profit shortly after. About six months into that job, he was promoted to Chief Technology Officer. He confided in me that he had doubts about being a manager, mainly because he would have people working for him that would know more than he would. I responded angrily because I thought he needed some tough love. I told him he was whining, and that managers always have staff that know more than they do, but that a manager must delegate, and multitask, and answer tough questions, while the workers just do their assigned responsibilities. At the same time, I was convincd that one day, in the future, Allen will call me and offer me a job. I was in awe of how motivated he was, and how driven he was.
Allen eventually grew comfortable in his role, so much so that he sat on a panel for social media at the ANC Grassroots conference in November 2011. I’m certain he participated in other conferences and presentations, but this was about giving back to the community. I was on the organizing committee for the conference, and when I asked Allen to present, he didn’t hesitate or hedge, he only wanted to know when, where, and the email address to send his presentation. I only regret that the conference ran long and he and the panel were forced to condense their presentations.
I got to know Sosé better after she and Allen started dating. Sosé and I connected over TV shows, movies, and food. Combining two of those three, she would constantly tell me that I should watch Top Chef. She would sing its praises, but they would fall on deaf ears. We did talk constantly and obsessively about Lost. She was one of the first people to tell me about The Wire and how amazing it was (she was right about this one). Oddly enough, Sosé and I also talked a lot about fantasy football. She had somehow started playing fantasy football with some coworkers, and kept going for several seasons, so during football season, the first thing we would ask on a Tuesday morning would be if the other person won or lost.
Sosé was as dedicated to the community as Allen was, and their friends and colleagues could see how these two would build on each other’s momentum to move their projects along. Even when they were working on different committees, both would always support each other completely, putting in as much work as the other person. When either of them were working on a project, that project’s success was never in doubt.
Perhaps their greatest and best project was planning their wedding in Armenia. The logistics of wedding planning are hard enough when it’s local, but when it’s halfway around the world, it becomes incomprehensible. Sosé would share with amazement her interaction with flower vendors in Armenia, who would be shocked when asked to plan for flower arrangements months in advance. But they also coordinated the travel and lodging for all the friends and family that came out, and even planned a post-wedding tour of Artsakh with their wedding guests. When she found out I was having trouble finding an apartment to rent for my week in Yerevan, Sosé insisted that I stay with them (my guilt was somewhat relieved by the fact that I was the one who found the apartment they eventually rented).
Sosé and Allen were both ecstatic about how the wedding turned out. I don’t remember ever seeing either of them that happy. They were happy to be getting married, and happy that everything went so smoothly and their project was such a success. They were happiest with each other. The wedding was in August 2012.
No one was surprised when they announced that they would be moving to Armenia. The move from Los Angeles (and Orange County, Sosé would insist on its inclusion) to Yerevan is daunting and seems nearly impossible. They both left behind their families and careers to start over in a place that doesn’t have nearly the same opportunities. I was, and still am, envious of their courage to go through with this. Many Diasporans talk about someday moving back to “our ancestral homelands,” but Sosé and Allen actually did it. Unfortunately, unbelievably, in the cruelest twist of fate, their courage and steely resolve were undone by the fragility of the human body.
I will miss my arguments with Allen. I will miss Sosé’s TV and restaurant recommendations. I will miss going to dinner with them and discussing politics and Armenia and all the things that are wrong with the Armenian community. But I will always admire them for their courage, and for their convictions. They knew what they wanted, and they never stopped until they had it. They had a dream, and they lived it. They were my friends, and now they’re gone, but they will always be my heroes.
In honor of Allen Yekikian, Director of Communications at the American University of Armenia, and his wife, Sose Thomassian, AUA held a candlelight vigil this evening, Saturday May 11, at 7PM on the steps the Main Building.