Unless we're unfortunate enough to be the first in our crowd to go, someday we all take the sad trip I recently made to say so long to a childhood pal.
I made that trip up the New Jersey Turnpike one February morning only because last summer, my old friend Steve graciously answered the question, "What would you do if you knew you had a few months to live?"
It's a query we commonly throw at each other in party games, deep talks and country songs. For Steve, the game became real. Which is why one day last August I got an email that began:
"I realize this is a bit unusual, and I'm sorry for using this email address to contact you, but I couldn't find anything else. My name is Stephen Seidler. You and I were once childhood friends growing up together in Brentwood... "
Wow! An old best buddy had tracked me down 30-something years after high school graduation sent us down different paths. Steve and I had bonded in late grade school on Long Island and stayed that way through middle school for reasons that were obvious: Two quiet redheads, short and young-looking (not an advantage in 6th grade), smart but not enough to coast, obedient by behavior but rebellious through quips. We weren't nerds but we weren't cool; for us, cutting class meant being summoned from math to serve as altar boys in the church attached to our school, St. Anne's.
I was thrilled to hear from Steve, but quickly grew uneasy.
"The main reason I'm writing this is that I want to thank you for all the memories, making me who I am today," Steve wrote. He recalled playing baseball in my yard and me cracking a joke that made him laugh until soda spilled from his nose -- for a young comedian like me, the equivalent of a standing ovation.
"Thank you for all the memories"? That's how people say goodbye in a high school yearbook, in a good luck card to a friend moving away... or when they are dying. Then came Steve's sign-off:
"Patrick... it was good knowing you."
Our follow-up emails confirmed my suspicion. Steve was diagnosed with ALS two years earlier and was now virtually bed-ridden. From that bed he sought a final touch with old friends. When he said I was the first on his list, I was proud and ashamed. Why didn't I seek him out before one of us was about to die?
Thus began a months-long email conversation in which we jogged our memories about childhood events: biking to each others' houses to play football and cards, the fight he had with a semi-bully who tried to pick on him in 7th grade, and spending summer afternoons blasting our old plastic toys into the air with firecrackers.
I tucked an offer to visit into one of my notes; I was disappointed but not surprised when he didn't reply. Would the joy of seeing an old friend be worth the discomfort of being viewed at your worst as you fade?
As winter neared, Steve's sister Patty joined the email chain to explain that he was in the hospital, then to say he was home but weakening. I sent a Christmas card in case he could read it. Steve sent no more emails. One Sunday in February I opened a message from Patty saying Steve had passed away that morning.
I knew Steve's death was imminent and even merciful. Still came my tears. Steve was my first childhood buddy to die as an adult.
Days later I drove to a Jersey shore town to spend the day navigating new feelings. I saw Steve's wife and three children (ages 10 to 18) for first time, walking behind his casket. I heard about his grown-up life through his eulogy. I traded stories with friends and siblings at a post-funeral fest of comfort food.
The day ended at Steve's house, where I studied the pictures on his refrigerator and stood in the room where he spent his last months and died -- feeling a tinge uncomfortable, like I didn't deserve such intimate familiarity with parts of his life I hadn't known.
The discomfort was overwhelmed by gratitude. Steve's wife and siblings told me how much my emails meant to Steve and my visit meant to them, but I insisted I was the thankful one. I learned about what my old buddy became when he grew up: an engineer (he always knew more about science than most kids); a man who spread laughter; who focused laser-like on whatever task he tackled (his research led him to suspect ALS before the doctors told him); who was game to try any food once; and who enjoyed more than anything playing with his kids. Steve was the guy who left the adult table at family gatherings to kick a soccer ball in the yard with the young ones.
By tracking me down, Steve let me know him as an adult (see photos) and tell others about him as a kid. During the drive home to Maryland, I realized he and I never gave each other birthday and Christmas presents; exchanging gifts is not a habit among middle school boys. Because of Steve's answer to, "What would you do if you knew you were going to die?" he and I exchanged gifts for the first time.