A death in the family, or so it feels

A death in the family, or so it feels

Nothing prepares you for the sudden death of a friend.

Once you’ve absorbed the shock, though, there’s always a period of making a mental inventory of all you shared.

The more long-lasting the friendship, the stronger the memories, and when you’re 770 miles away from home, about the best you can do is relive some of those moments that still matter.

He was a year behind me in school, which at that time seemed an enormous gulf, one that shrunk as we grew older. Now, with him gone so unexpectedly, it’s like we’ve been walking the same path for a long time.

It’s happened several times recently. I’ll be reading my email and word will come that a high school classmate has died. Most of the time, I know the name and can recall a few salient details of his or her life back then, but the connections tend to be tangential, hazy.

Not so in this case.

He and I played on the same softball team for the better part of 20 years, and it’s going to sound like a lame cliché, but when that happens, you become like family. You attend each other’s weddings. You celebrate the birth of children. You get together for holiday parties. You gather to watch a big game on TV. You ride to the rescue when someone’s going through a rough patch of life.

And, sometimes, you attend funerals together. My teammates were there for me when both of my parents died, as was I for them in their times of sadness and loss.

It’s not something you even think about.

If a teammate is in need, you just show up and you help out.

He and I got to know each other in parochial grade school, and we soon discovered we had a mutual love for music, particularly rock ’n’ roll, which helped elevate our friendship beyond the typical playground competitive rivalry.

I remember a sunny morning in summer 1968. We walked from his house to the downtown record store, where we pooled our pocket change and bought a copy of “Pictures of Matchstick Men” by the Status Quo. We then spent hours playing it over and over on his bedroom turntable, the psychedelic wash of the wah-wah guitars drenching us as we wrote down the lyrics and sang along.

In years to come, we’d play a verbal sort of music trivia ping-pong, each trying to stump the other with our recollections.

“‘The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp,’” I’d fire out.

“Too easy,” he’d reply. “O.C. Smith. ‘Toast and Marmalade for Tea.’”

“Man,” I’d say, “you always try to get that one past me. Tin Tin.”

That kind of good-natured one-upmanship could go on for considerable periods and became part of our ritual, something our teammates took for granted and sometimes kidded us about.

“Who even cares about the Damnation of Aaron Blessing?” one might scoff as the post-game revelry wore on in one of our haunts.

“It’s Adam Blessing,” I’d say.

“And we do,” my friend would finish.

It’s hard to explain beyond those three words.

Easier to comprehend is the continued success our Church League team enjoyed. Season after season after season, we won and won, and then we won some more. I spent 23 summers with those guys and would have kept on playing, had we not left home in 2000.

The other day my wife came into the stereo room where I was working on one of my online music challenges and listening to an extended version of “It’s a Shame” by the Spinners.

“Yes, dear?” I said, looking up from my computer cockpit.

“There’s a house for rent back home,” she said, reeling off the address, the number of bathrooms and details about the garage.

“Really?” I said. “How much?”

“Less than here,” she said. “It’s got a big back yard, nice deck.”

“Interesting,” I said. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “What do you think?”

We’ve had this kind of discussion more and more often lately, and I feel as if it’s starting to become a real thing, a tangible entity. When we first washed up on the shores of Coastal Carolina, having left everyone and everything we knew hundreds of miles behind, we were like castaways trying to come to terms with a new reality.

If you’d told us then we’d last more than 20 years, we’d have considered you either dangerously optimistic or just deranged.

One thing we agreed on from the very start was that we didn’t want to be one of those couples who try to make a fresh start somewhere only to come crawling back home in a few months.

Well, that certainly can’t be said of us now. We’ve made a good life together, have weathered storms — both meteorological and metaphorical — and have spent more time on the beach than most surfer dudes a third our age.

We’ve done OK in our professional lives as well, but with my wife having retired several years ago, I often wonder if we have one more move left in us. It wouldn’t be easy to lure her away from her beloved ocean, but she does have three sons and a couple of grandkids that she’d love to spend more time with back home.

My vantage point is a little different. Moving, whether it’s across town or cross country, is a gigantic pain in the posterior. And I’d have to find gainful employment, which wouldn’t be easy from this distance. The pandemic is another concern. We’re both, after all, in what’s considered to be the high-risk age zone for the virus.

But then something like my friend’s unexpected death happens.

Suddenly, you realize you don’t have all the time in the world.

Overnight, you understand that if you want something, you’d better go for it while you still can.

I’m not saying that had I never left, my friend wouldn’t have died.

That’s between him and his God, and now, well, they’ve met.

But it would have been nice not to feel so distant, so helpless in the face of loss, to be unable to reach out a hand, to offer a hug, to share a knowing smile, to be a part of saying one last goodbye.

As the Rolling Stones said all those years ago, "You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you get what you need."

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