In some ways, I wished I had checked my email earlier; in others, I wished I had waited longer. Either way, I was not prepared. I read it with my eyes, but it felt like a punch in the gut that rose through my heart and poured from my eyes. I cried all night, into the hours of the morning. I woke up late with eyes puffy and searching. They searched with hope an email inbox without that message, letting me know it was all a dream. But it wasn't. He was gone.
It used to feel ridiculous to talk about him to others because he was a most unlikely friend. Unlikely because the world says we should not have formed a friendship. Friends can be made anywhere; I happened to make this one in a job interview. He had forty-four years of life on me, but our last conversation involved chit chat about The Hunger Games, which was totally not his type of book. And he had read it. We talked about the themes, the characters, the sequel, the sociology of it all. Amazingly, that is how our very first conversation had begun. Sociology. He liked to talk with me about it as much as I liked to talk to him about science.
He, like me, was a meaning-maker. He too blushed deeply at public recognition, viewed no topic off-limits, and preferred small, intimate gatherings and one-on-one conversations. He served me and cared for me in ways that referring to him simply as my "boss" makes slight of his words and actions. I would have done practically anything for him and remember the day I told him I would be tested to give him my stem cells. God gave me a life-giving love for him.
Feeling such fondness and admiration for him surprised even me over the years. The day he called to tell me about his condition, I was standing on a walkway between buildings pacing about, which became the place we had many important conversation the last one and a half years. If only I had my Fitbit then, I would have logged some serious steps.
Before the condition, he honestly looked and seemed like a man twenty years younger. I swore he incorporated some of his research into special procedures and drugs to keep him young and active. He honestly had more energy that any person I know. I saw him fade over that last one and a half years in a way that pained me, even though for eight of those months, he was not even in Charlottesville. Reality leaked over the phone, the way it does even when a brave face and voice is showing. Even when the words are all right. Even when hope seeps. I began preparing, though he assured me it wasn't his time.
Instead it was time for us to discuss my future, my next steps, the mountain goat he saw in the morning, the very short but rejuvenating walk/hike on a day he felt up for it, the snow on the mountains in the window. It was time for us to talk about which trips I would take next, whether I still was glad I had gotten my tattoo, his grandchildren.
When I got that email, I thought...I hope he got those cards I just sent. I hope he knows how much he meant to me. How much he meant to others. I didn't get to tell him everything I wanted in the end. I didn't get to have that lunch we scheduled. I hope it sunk in that when I planned that huge event last year that was for him and not for him, just as this condition was bearing down, that it really was for him. That all he loved about it and praised as a job well done was my work to honor him. His legacy. I think he knew that. I hope he did.
Because it is not time for regrets of how I should have taken dinner over. How I should have said this or that. How I should have cared for him and his wife. I know he was extremely touched with what I did do and say, and that is the place I need to live. Probably in an effort to convince myself of this while thinking of so many "what-ifs" and "I should have...," I asked my new grad program for a copy of his letter. I knew they did not have to send it since I had waived my right to see all recommendations. However, they knew what was in the letter and how much it would mean to me. They sent it in a very nice email with condolences. They were right. It really meant a lot. And it is where my thoughts need to linger.
So, today I am living in the present, appreciating and celebrating my friend's life and finding little ways to honor and remember him.
*I purposely am omitting his name and several key details. This is the fourth time I wrote a post about this. I deleted all of them. I can finally finish one without deleting it.