Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Friend's Call

The other day, I think it was Thursday, I was driving home after a particularly good day at work. I stopped at a red light and instinctively reached for my cell phone. I caught myself as a memory from my childhood flashed through my mind. My childhood friend Pete’s father worked for the phone company. He was some sort of investigator for telephone fraud or something like that. I’m not sure I really knew what he did. I was about 12 years old and Pete’s father was driving me home after playing at Pete’s house. About 2 miles along the 3 mile or so ride home, he said to me, “do you want to play a prank on your mom?”

And he lifted up the center console and there hidden was a phone. A car phone. It was a big box with all sorts of buttons and a coil of wire with a handset attached. He handed me the handset, pushed some buttons, and it started ringing on the other end. This was the late 1970’s. If I had seen anything like this ever in my life it was in a James Bond movie.

“Hello?” my mom answered.
“Uh, hi Mom. Um, I, um, it’s John!”
“Hi Johnny. What is it?”

I didn’t know what to say and looked to my friend’s dad.

“Tell her you’ll be home soon,” he whispered with a grin.
“I, uh, I’ll be home soon, okay?”
“Okay sweetie. See you soon.”
And as she hung-up we turned into our driveway.
"My goodness! That was fast," she said when she greeted me at the door.

To this day I’m still not completely sure my mom knew what happened. But I amused myself with the memory. I hadn’t thought of it in some time. Years probably. The light turned green and on I went.

This morning that same dear old friend called me out of the blue. Other than the occasional Facebook update or e-mail, we hadn’t spoken in nearly three years. This morning he called to tell me his father died just a little while earlier.

Pete’s father was 80 years old and had suffered from Parkinson’s disease for some time. It was one of those sad and merciful deaths, he explained, and he had the opportunity to be with him last night and say goodbye. And that is a blessing. I couldn’t talk long, unfortunately, I explained, Saturday things like baseball games and such, but I’d call back later. Which I did.

And when I hung up the strangest thing happened. I started crying. I was completely surprised by the sadness and feeling of loss. Sure it was a childhood friend’s father, but not that unexpected really. I didn't know he was so close to death but I knew he had been sick for years. So while the news for me was sudden, his death was not. It also just so happens to be 2 days before the ‘anniversary’ of Amy’s death. Even though I hadn’t seen my friend's father in a long time, those feelings of loss and grief are very close to the surface these days.

But something else was going on and I was also flooded with childhood memories of a man I only really knew when I was a child, then a teen, and only really knew as well as a boy can know the father of a close friend. The father of a close fried who was a good man – a man who worked with tools and helped me build my first Pinewood Derby car in Cub Scouts. A stout and strong man who could sometimes be stern when we got a bit out of line. And then more memories: a birthday party with a piƱata, camping trips, bike rides through the orchards with my friend, and motorcycles, their backyard pool, and a fort he built on telephone pool stilts in their backyard. I remembered our families getting together, a New Years Eve party, and my dad and Pete’s dad laughing. I remembered sneaking booze from his parent’s liquor cabinet during sleepovers. And a party during college break. Then we each moved on with our lives.  Marriages, kids, life, death, and so on.

Pete and I have not been in close contact these past, what, nearly 30 years. 30 years! Has it really been nearly 30 years? And was it nearly 40 years ago when we met in Mrs. Harper’s first grade class at Harrison Township Elementary?

After a period apart we reconnected several years ago and he and his family came to visit. It felt like no time had passed and we picked right up where we left off. I remember his girls and my boys getting along well. And then a couple years later Amy died and he showed up at my house again. And now his father is gone. And though I can count on one hand the times we’ve seen each other since the mid 1980’s, Pete is still one of my oldest and dearest friends.

And maybe that is why I cried this morning. I suppose some of the sadness was about his father’s death and imagining Pete’s loss. But also I felt, in a somewhat selfish way, my own loss. The loss and passing of the years and the passing of a friendship from one age to another. From a time of shared, idle summer days shooting BB guns at a woodpile to a time as adults nearing a half-century of life, now with growing children, and aging and dying parents.

There is no new wisdom here, really – only a restating of what we already known. We wonder why it is that we must die. What is its purpose? If nothing else one’s death is a gift to the living. A poignant reminder that life passes by faster with each new day, and we get this one chance so make the most of it.

That’s about it.

Rest in peace, Mr. C. I'm glad to have known you. Rest in peace.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Fare thee well, digital shadow - An update

My interview with BBC 4 Radio’s Jolyon Jenkins aired last night in the UK in part 3 of a 3-part series called Out of the Ordinary. It is here as a podcast. I come on at 25:00, but listen to the whole thing. It’s interesting.

Now, here is the backstory:
Back in September 2012 I posted an essay about my experience with Amy’s email and other online artifacts. A BBC researcher found the essay through an online search and contacted me via email. She was researching for a story on digital legacies. I had a pre-interview via skype, then the real interview with Mr. Jenkins on February 1, 2013 at the BBC office on M Street in Washington, DC.

It’s interesting to think about the original essay and musing on Amy’s after death existence in the digital world slowly disappearing only now to have it live on, in some way, in the BBC archives.