Somehow between yesterday and today, thirty years have passed.
I recently attended the funeral of someone I once held dear. He was part of a tightly knit group of colleagues who used to gather every Friday night in my house to drink, smoke, laugh, and eventually morph into my audience. My house was where we held weekly Friday Night Happy Hours, and I was the entertainment.
I was young and a songwriter and I would slip away from the boisterous group in my living room and quietly make my way to my piano, which had its own room— a womb for my soul. They understood my process. They could tell when my fragile, insecure ego and its clumsily sought notes had vaporized, and my id began to meld with the keyboard. Safely lost in the music now flowing through my fingertips, they would silently enter the room, one by one, sit on the bed behind me, and listen. Once I’d hit alpha state, fully relaxed, released, and comfortable playing in the presence of others, I would stop playing my own songs, turn around to them, and ask for requests.
That’s when the party really got started. I would play and they would sing along and they would try to stump me with a song I couldn’t play— but they never could.
We were young twenty-somethings, teachers all. We worked in a segregated school for students with intellectual, physical, sensory, and/or emotional impairments: a mini-institution before we knew right from wrong.
The world has changed since then and so have we.
Me…I was blessed with a brain tumor a few years ago. I say blessed, because it grabbed me with the hand of mortality—- and yanked me into an illuminated life. It stared into the face of my fragility—and transformed me from glass into diamond. When we were young, I often woke depressed and anxious. Every day since opening my post-surgical eyes still alive on this Earth I wake contented and eager.
He…my friend in those salad days… my friend whose funeral I recently attended, suffered his own health crises. They made him bitter. In youth, he’d been our group’s comedian. He’d entertained us with a non-stop tongue-in-cheek wit and caustic slant on the alternate universe in which we spent our days. He was kind and light with his students, and he taught them well. He was kind and light with himself, too, and with his friends.
As we neared thirty, our career paths split. He stayed at the school, while I traveled around. He stayed with his students, while I worked at other schools, and in other positions. I went to work trying to change the system, and he stayed at school, trying to change one life at a time. I left my husband, and he left his— our group went through similar changes. Marriages. Children. Divorces. Promotions. Set Backs.
Friday Night Happy Hours had ended. The actuality of our middle years had begun.
We fell out of touch with one another and our lives became distanced…for over two decades our relationship was reduced to quick hugs and hellos at a training we might both attend, or a chance meeting in the grocery store.
Nearly twenty-nine years later, our lives came full circle, when he called to check up on me after having heard through the grapevine about my brain tumor and surgery. When I became strong enough to have visitors, he was among the first to show up at my door. I was thankful for his open hand.
But time had passed, and it became clear ours had, too. His wit had taken on a malicious, angry tone and his caustic slant had grown into a dense, deep, darkness. When we spoke, I could no longer sense any light in him. And I could not join him in darkness. I had fought hard to stay on an illuminated path, to seek the light. My life had become precious, every minute of it, and I could no longer waste even one moment of it anchored in someone else’s darkness.
And so I chose not to reclaim his friendship.
I left him to his darkness.
At his “celebration of life” we watched a sequential slide show that began with a close up of his baby picture, then morphed that same face instantaneously from baby to boy to tween to teen to man to middle-aged to senior. Through his morphing face I saw my own. I paused to look around the room and there we all were, that same handful of twenty-somethings — beginning teachers once bound by youthful exuberance, hope and joy. There we all were, once close, then scattered, now blown together again by the wind of his loss. There we all were: all of us who were once so young were now at once so old. We had become the grayed, wrinkled retiring veteran teachers we’d once pushed aside, whose systems we were going to revolutionize. We blinked, reality shifted, and now we’d become them.
Sitting in the sanctuary, watching the slideshow, I felt a cold sadness. There he was, the picture of a man in his twenties… those eyes, that same gorgeous face, that same energy that attracted me when we’d first met. I missed that face. I missed that man. I missed that friend I’d once had. I missed the man he once was. I felt a deep sadness. He’d spent most of his later years clinging to the dark. I’ve spent mine floating in the light. I understood his brutal childhood. I understood his fresh idealism. I understood his anger. I understood the evolution of his cynicism. I carried his pain. I abandoned him selfishly. I embraced happiness and joy instead. I felt regret. I felt forgiveness. I forgave him and I forgave myself. It was as it was.
I missed him. Through the passing of years, we’d passed each other by. Through the passage of life, we’d missed each other. Completely. And now, he is gone completely. Now he is gone forever.