The father of one of my lifelong friends recently passed away. On 24 hours notice, I jumped on a plane from San Diego to Detroit, then drove four hours from Detroit to Cheboygan, MI, for the funeral. Several of my friends did the same: drop everything, one of our own has lost a parent. Not all of us made it — life gets in the way — but enough of us did for me to stop and think about how amazing it is that our friendships have lasted our entire lives.
I live a rather fortunate existence. Hard work has made me what I am, don’t get me wrong, but there’s been more than a fair share of circumstances beyond my control that have given me a leg up in the world. Along with parents who are like something out of an 80s Disney flick, a business partner that solves more problems than Winston Wolfe, and no health issues of significance, I am lucky enough to have a cadre of high school friends that remain close to this day.
When I was younger, I kind of assumed that everyone had their group that would be friends until the end. As I get older and meet more people, I learn that’s not always the case. Your Life Starter Kit™ does not include the cast of AMERICAN PIE. People come and go in our lives, and once we get past the age of 25-ish, it’s rare for new friends to stick long enough for one of you to see the other put in the ground.
So the older I become, the grayer my head-stubble gets (I took the express train to “bald” years ago, my friends), the more I appreciate what I have in these fine gentlemen who spent countless hours playing D&D with with me back in the day (80’s gut-check, nerds, we also played Champions, Danger International, Silent Death, Battletech, Call of Cthulhu and more). Every Saturday and Sunday in the basement of one set of parents or another made for quite a bond, a bond that was further tempered from experiences on the football field and the wrestling mat, from dealing with girlfriends and broken hearts, from finding new and inventive ways to get into trouble, and from being there for each other as life took us into college, adulthood and different directions.
When you’re coming together as a group of friends, there is rarely a definitive moment you can point to and say, “it all began here.” You sit next to this guy in history class, that guy is on the football team, this neighbor kid is on the same bus as you are, etc. You make a friend. That person has a friend, and you all start hanging out together. Someone new moves into town, and you take them under your wing. Any number of chance encounters or steady familiarity forms the nucleus of a social circle that will be your world through junior high and high school, and, if you’re fortunate, through college and beyond.
You can’t say where it started, exactly, and if you’re as fortunate as me, you can’t say when it “ends” because it simply doesn’t: you just stop seeing each other in person as often. And that factor — the distance created by separate lives — is what creates cracks that can make you forget about people who were, at one time, among the most important in your life.
But for some groups, like me, life events bring you back together. At first, they are simple and easy. They don’t even take any planning.
Some people have them, some don’t. To me, this is the first milestone I can point to and say, “we were all moving on in life together.” Pure childhood was over. We were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, and stepping toward adulthood. Some of us went off to college, some did not. While I didn’t have a graduation party (far too bourgeois for the practical boy I was, even though I had no idea what “bourgeois” meant at the time and to this day I can’t pronounce it correctly), I did go to those of my friends. I remember this new feeling, the sense that we really were moving on. Like our parents, older siblings, like the people in the movies we watched and the TV shows we followed, we were actually growing up. If there was a kick-off point for the core group splitting up, to me, the graduation parties acted as the starting pistol.
Ah, these were the best of times. We were all in the prime of our youth, swaggery with the accomplishment of “getting out” (the words we used to describe escaping our small, remote town), of experiencing something different, of forging our own paths. That and beer, of course. Lots of beer. Too much beer. Don’t tell my mom, she thinks I was volunteering at the library.
The summer after freshman year, everyone came back. We were the conquering heroes returning home, we were the Spartans back from battle. Yes, we had done it, we had escaped. All of us felt quite cosmopolitan (another word that I had no idea existed at the time, but at least I can pronounce it, because it’s an excellent cocktail).
The next summer, however, time stepped in and started to pull people apart like refs dragging bodies off a fumble pile. My parents moved to a new town, meaning I didn’t see my guys that often. Other people moved away as well. Some chose to not go home for summers, but instead stay at their schools.
Our social glue began to break down. We tried to get together a few times a year, but getting all the fellas in one place at one time? Damn near impossible. And as college graduation and jobs approached, we knew the writing was on the wall. Thankfully, however, there was another milestone of western culture just over the horizon: wedding season.
I call it “wedding season” with the concept that some seasons run along the course of a lifetime rather than repeating every year. We were all in our 20s. We met girls. We fell in love with said girls. We started getting hitched.
Weddings were that next Thing Of Such Importance that you tried hard to get to them no matter what was going on in your life. I can’t remember how many times I wore a rented tux, standing in a line with four or five guys I grew up with, staring down the aisle as the organ player fired up “Here Comes the Bride.” Sometimes I was the best man, sometimes I was a groomsman, sometimes I sat in the pews and tried to not fall asleep.
There was the bachelor party, then the ceremony, then the reception. People came from all over. The boys were back in town, so to speak. It was one after another as I watched guys I had known all my life head off in yet another new direction. Little did we know at the time that some of us wouldn’t see each other for years, even decades after these events.
In fact, even though we all love each other and we’re still close, the natural courses of our lives pushed us apart. It would take yet another “Season” to bring us all back together again, a season filled with utter suckitude. We’re still in the midst of that season, and it is a long season of death.
FUNERALS FOR PARENTS
I didn’t see that one coming, did you? Those pillars of our lives, those immortal titans that seemed so indestructible — turns out they aren’t so immortal after all. You get older. Parents die. Hearts break, souls weaken, you feel a loss that will never be fixed. We were tight enough as a group that we all know each other’s parents. They fed us, shlepped us to various practices, even stepped in to straighten us out when our own parents weren’t around. They were part of the village that made us who we are.
And, they die. When your friend needs you the most, you get on a plane and you go. Even then, sometimes life gets in the way, but most of our crew has been there for those who lost a mother or a father.
Surprisingly, in the midst of this inevitable reality of the living, coming back for the dead put all the boys in the same place once again. Older. Grayer. Fatter. A bit more surly, perhaps. But the love hasn’t changed. It’s a surreal experience, a time warp where my smiling high school friends have visited a Hollywood FX studio to be done up like a middle-aged men.
These are still the guys you would do anything for. These are the people for whom you would go to the mattresses (if you don’t know what that means, a: watch THE GODFATHER, and then b: Google that phrase). When you get together once again in a time of tragedy, you realize that nothing has changed. These men are the fabric of what you became, and will continue to be the substance of who you are.
My own parents are still kicking. I hope they continue to do so forever and ever, but in reality that probably won’t happen. When they go, I’ll be a goddamn disaster. We’re talking medieval wailing, dripping snot, the whole nine yards. And when that happens, I know my crew will be there, completely ignoring that fact that I’m crying like a five-year-old. Because that’s what friends do: true friends are the armor that protects you when you are defenseless.
So, the parents gotta go. Such is life. And when they are gone, there will be only one thing left to bring us together.
Now here’s something you definitely don’t think about in those marathon D&D sessions as a kid, right? Our own fucking funerals, man. We’re getting up there in years. Sooner than we’d like to think, my friends and I will all get together again. The group will be minus-one, because one of us will be the guest of honor.
And, yes, I will be a total wreck. Me and funerals? Not exactly the template for manliness.
I won’t want to go, but I will. I’ll celebrate the memory of my lifelong friends. Yes, there will be beer. And cosmopolitans (because now I am old and pretty goddamn fancy). There will be stories about all of us, including the one in the ground — hey, just because you’re dead doesn’t mean we’re going to go easy on you. The survivors will eventually head home, knowing full well that we won’t be together again until another of our pack kicks off this mortal coil.
It’s sobering, but you know what? It’s also fantastic. I am lucky in more ways than I can count; knowing that the people I grew up with will be there when I croak, that our bond is strong enough to last from all-night D&D sessions all the way through to Dances With Worms? There is comfort in that: it is a life worth living.
Boys, here’s to you. I love ya.