Life, the Universe and Everything
When I was 5 years old, I met a little boy. I was instantly in awe of him because he was allowed to cross the street unsupervised. He was wearing tube socks with green stripes, one pulled up to his knee and the other bunched at his ankle, because 197os tube socks had terrible elastic. There were crumbs around his mouth from a Tastykake chocolate cupcake.
“Where are all the kids,” he asked? I told him that I was the only one his age.
“Forget it,” he said. “I don’t play with girls.” He turned his back and walked away.
Little did I know then, but that pain-in-the-ass kid would turn out to be my childhood best friend.
We had our ups and downs throughout our childhood, from moments of extreme bonding to literal knock-down, drag-out fights. I may have been skinny, but I always put up a fight. I never let him forget the time I knocked out his front tooth when he tackled me from behind. He swore it had been loose, but I was his best friend; I would have known if he’d had a loose tooth.
“I’m the brother you never had,” he’d tell me.
“I never wanted a brother,” I’d remind him.
Maybe his sibling analogy wasn’t far off. We’d brutally insult each other, but god help anyone else who did the same.
We made some bad decisions together. I wouldn’t change them.
I still have his phone number memorized.
I saw the ambulance from my bedroom window. It had a direct line of sight to his front door. I thought that maybe his grandmother was visiting. I never imagined that it would be him. Once I heard, I read every book that I could find about epilepsy, not wanting him to know that I was scared. We never talked about it.
After a particularly contentious fight, we were once again not speaking. He showed up at my front door. “You have to see this movie,” he said. “It’s called The Princess Bride.”
All was forgiven.
I talked him into asking his dream girl to the prom.
He voiced very loud concerns that none of my boyfriends were worthy.
“The answer to the question of life, the universe and everything is 42,” he said, quoting The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “Do you think that’s because you finally have your shit together by the time you’re 42? I’d like to think that I’ll have it all figured out by then.”
We had a fight about nothing. I called repeatedly. He wouldn’t call back. It took my mother’s death to bring him back. We never apologized. We couldn’t even remember what we had been fighting about, just that at some point, it became too awkward to pick up the phone.
He’d been doing strongman competitions, which everyone thought was strange. All the stuff he talked about is stuff I hear from Crossfit devotees today.
We vowed that this time, we’d keep in touch.
I had just gotten back to my desk between meetings when I saw the email come in. It was from his sister, short and simple. “Call me.”
The blood drained from my body. I knew. I don’t know how or why, but I knew before I even picked up the phone. She didn’t have to tell me he was gone.
You think that the first days of grieving are the hardest, that the shock is the worst part. It’s not. The worst part comes later, when you’re telling stories to your kid, tales of your childhood misadventures. That’s when you realize that there’s a hole there, an empty spot with rough edges that catch you and take your breath away when you least expect it.
Today is his birthday. 42. I wonder if he would have had it all figured out by now if he’d had the time.