“. . . filing the rough edges of my thoughts.”
Sudden grief hits the soul like a tossed Jim Beam bottle hits the pavement. The larger memory-shards are all odd-shaped. Every edge bears the ability to slice and lacerate. Those we easily see, gingerly picking them up and beginning the cleanup of myriad details.
The smaller bits aren’t as noticeable, yet they hide in the crevices between memories and conscious thoughts. Though small, they yet are able to cut and wound. They’re gritty and tough. And because they’re so tiny, it takes time to locate and vacuum them up.
That’s sudden grief. Now and then. Present and future. Immediate and gradual. Never one or the other, but both/and.
The passing of a close friend who’s been ill hurts, even though there is the understanding death may be imminent. When that best friend suddenly dies, the immediate relational vacuum is startling.
I had rejection issues as a boy. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It just happened.
My siblings were all older than I; the next eldest brother almost 10 years older, and the oldest three 20 years ahead. My eldest niece was 4 months older than I. With my parents being the ages of all my ‘friends’ grandparents, I didn’t know where I fit. At family gatherings, I always wound up with my siblings’ children. I’d be around my own brothers and sisters briefly, during which time they’d all be ‘parenting’ me–then they’d leave. Introverted anyway, I learned to hold my feelings in and be outwardly friendly. It was good defensive armor. It let me be a nice guy while keeping all at arm’s length.
There were friendly acquaintances aplenty.
Not real friends. Especially not best friends, of whom I had two: Thomas Shippentower and Lowry Rasmussen. I never saw Thomas again after 7th grade. Lowry and I parted after high school graduation and I only saw him once again, almost 13 years later. It wasn’t long after that his body was found in his Corvette out in some woods. It seemed like anyone I allowed inside my walls either left, too–or were taken from me.
As an adult, all those early experiences make it quite a mission to become a close friend to me. I have one or two who made the effort to open themselves to me and welcome me to do the same with them; I believe them to be close friends.
For day-to-day checking up, by phone or by email; for palling around; for spending time baring hearts and spirits; for sharing life experiences and matters of deep, personal faith–I’ve never had a better friend than you, Jack.
We wore the same uniform, shared many of the same military experiences and philosophies. We prayed and discussed virtually every aspect of our adult lives as only senior adults scanning past decades are able to do. We sang together, worshiped together. We were at each other’s homes, eating, playing games, and discussing whatever happened to be on our minds and hearts. Nothing was off limits. And, man, did we share the coffee!
You and I, Jack, routinely met for years at Panera Bread on North Rock. We always wore clothing that distinguished us as USAF veterans, and always thanked brothers in arms we recognized for their service. There we were, an old SAC Bomb-Nav troop and an old ADC Air Control and Weapons weenie, proud and privileged to have served. I always had a roll with my java, but you always had your healthy oatmeal and berries with yours.
I remember objecting the first time you wouldn’t let me buy mine. You said, “I read your 2nd Cup of Coffee. I’m what you call a “2nd Cupper”. You’ve written so much that encourages me and makes me think. I don’t have that gift. So I use my tip money from volunteering out at the base to invite you here each week and repay you in the only way I can. Let me do this.”
Then when we found a good spot to sit where we could talk, you again surprised me. “As a pastor and chaplain, you always get asked to do the praying. Let me ask the blessing.” From then on, you never hesitated. The minute we sat down, your hat came off and you blessed the food and our time together in as straightforward and humble a manner as I’ve ever experienced. God listened to every word, and I felt those times to be sacred.
I know you always got a charge out of talking about how I’d named my guardian angel, Ralph. I can still hear your laugh as you’d ask what I’d put him through since we’d last talked . . .
I wouldn’t know where to start in recounting all the things you and I shared all these years, Jack. We deep-dived into each other’s family issues, knowing the information was safe. Security clearances run deep. Perhaps because of our shared Air Force background and our similar core values and ethical standards, there was an instinctive soul-link between us.
When I got the call you’d died last Saturday in a car accident, you’ll understand why I was stunned into silence. Everything in me quieted down. I could feel the old stirrings of a wounded little boy withdrawing quietly from the hurt and sere, vacant place where somebody I loved once was. Old, impenetrable walls shot up before I could think. It’s taking me some time to retract them.
You see, Jack, real friendship doesn’t expire. You’re gone now. You’ve taken your last flight. You’ve PCS’d Home. I remember you shaking your head in wonderment at how God kept me here, and why. And how often you shared your love for God, and how you looked forward to the release from this world’s troubles that is Heaven.
You’re there. Yet your friendship remains vibrant. Close friends are a gift from God to our hearts. They don’t just happen. So even though you’re so quickly no longer here, your being my authentic friend, my brother in Christ, and a comrade in arms never changes. I hold those memories strong and always shall.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Love is unselfishly choosing for another’s highest good.” That epitomizes you, Jack. I’ve never known a man more willing to stop what he’s doing to help someone else than you. The day you died, you were doing a favor for an old friend who could no longer do for himself.
It’s why you were on the road that day instead of fiddling with those bare spots in your yard, trying to get grass to grow. Could whatever stopped your heart have happened out in the yard? Sure. But it didn’t.
It happened as you were focused on “choosing for another’s highest good.” That shines, Jack. That’s just who you were.
Thank you for being my best friend. It’ll be my honor to salute you as your earthly remains are laid to rest, surrounded by other men and women who chose to serve their country.
Letting you go is one of the toughest things I’ll ever do. Yet I know where you are. I’ll look you up one day. Have the coffee hot and fresh.
Oh–tell Ralph ‘hey’ for me. He deserves a Purple Heart.
© D. Dean Boone, August 4, 2017.