Why is it that making friends is so much easier for kids?
Is it because childhood is the age of authenticity, the time in our lives when we are the newest version of ourselves long before self-awareness leads to self-consciousness?
Is it because at that critical age we are all well springs of optimism, having not lived long enough to even be aware that our hearts might require guarding someday, before betrayal, before disappointment, before becoming cynical and jaded, before we eat from the tree in the middle of the garden – an age of innocence?
Were we just more free in that naive state to form close bonds with our peers? Or, was it something organic within us at that age that compelled us to connect, to share, to play, to explore the world around us and to begin to explore what it means to be in relationship with another human – to have a best friend and to be a best friend – when holding the title of best friend was a badge of honor that we cherished? Maybe most of us had a childhood best friend.
Mike was my best friend.
I don’t remember how we met – whether it was at school or just hanging out around the neighborhood. All I know is once we met, there was rarely a day that we didn’t hang together for at least a little while – especially in the summer. For probably 4 or 5 years, I was at his house or he was at mine. Before the era of helicopter parents, we roamed the dirt streets of our neighborhood looking for adventure until darkness drove us back inside. He had bunk beds and he let me claim the top bunk when I slept over. He had an older brother and an older sister which automatically increased the cool factor. We loved to play war with the other kids in the neighborhood. We dressed in old army fatigues and developed elaborate rules of engagement. We argued about how high you had to count while lying on the ground after you’d been “shot” by the opposing team. Mike had the best woods behind his house and an unfinished concrete block barn that made a great command central. When our parents weren’t looking, we sneaked our BB guns to the battlefield and upped the stakes on the action.
We rode bikes. God almighty did we ride bikes. Nothing was out of range for us on our bikes – not the sand pits, not the painted desert, not the 7/11 gas station across Whiskey Rd or Mundy’s Grocery. We could ride some damn bikes. I still remember Mike’s dog, 3-legged-Lucky, the Irish Setter, right on our tail wherever we went. He actually had 4 legs but one of his front legs was injured in a hit-by-car incident and it always just stuck out in front of him, useless, tapping the ground with every stride. But, somehow he always kept up.
Aside… I’ll never forget the time we were fishing at the ponds down by my house and somehow we hooked Lucky in the nuts. It wasn’t just any fish hook either. It was a huge crank bait that must’ve had at least 3 treble hooks all along its length. Fourty years later, I don’t remember how we got it out. I just remember a bunch of little kids trying to hold him down to retrieve our lure and he was not happy with us!
We were like brothers, only better, because we never fought. I don’t ever remember fighting with Mike. Not that he was passive – I witnessed some fights between Mike and Jimmy over the years. There was a temper underneath that laid back attitude if he was provoked. I just don’t ever remember having a reason to be mad at Mike. We were play fighting one time and, like an idiot, I hit him on the shin bone. Broke my hand. Had to wear a cast for a month. I remember one time when he got mad at me for kicking his bike after I wrecked on a jump – left a black mark on the top cross-bar from the sole of my tennis shoe. He was pretty pissed. I felt pretty stupid for lashing out at his bike. I think we just got over it.
We did so much stuff together. I can’t even begin list or remember it all.
We camped out in the field behind the Willis’ house – big groups of the kids in the neighborhood. The older siblings usually organized it and Mike and I just tagged along. We never slept. We just did stupid stuff all night long. I’m pretty sure all my parents knew is that I was spending the night at Mike’s. I didn’t feel it was necessary to share the details of our outdoor “not-sleeping” arrangement.
We antagonized Ms. Harrington at the end of Mike’s street by cutting through her backyard on foot to go to the creek to play or to take the short-cut to my house. On the occasions when she happened to see us trespassing, she hurled a variety of profanities in our direction at the top of her lungs in her distinct New England accent. We would break into a run and look over our shoulder to see her shaking her walking stick at us. Fortunately, her scruffy little black dog was never that concerned about us and he stayed by her side, never offering to give chase. We were convinced if given the chance she would have beaten us within an inch of our lives with that walking stick.
If we didn’t feel like shooting BB guns or slingshots, playing war or anything else outdoor related, some afternoons we would utilize the scraps of wood in Mike’s dad’s garage to make little cars or trucks or other useless do-dads. None, of course, survived childhood, but we were proud of them and we managed not to cut off our fingers.
After a while Mike and I started hanging out less frequently. We were getting older and our interests were evolving. I started playing football. Mike didn’t play. I tried to recruit him, but he wasn’t interested. Looking back it was really weird and sad. There was no formal goodbye. We weren’t in the same class at school anymore. We went from being inseparable to hardly seeing each other. When the winds of life blew us in different directions, the friend that I once loved like a brother and I just grew apart quietly, gradually, unceremoniously. I was too young and naive to recognize the tragedy in a forsaken friendship.
Isn’t that ironic? The beauty of close friendship gets squandered on those least appreciative of its value and least capable of curating it. Does it still hold some lasting benefit? Some token of gratitude? A lesson we can carry into adulthood? Maybe… But, in this moment all I feel is emptiness.
I never knew Mike as an adult. But, knowing him as well as I did as child, I feel I can safely make these assumptions. He was quiet. He was kind. He was considerate. He was a devoted son, husband and father. He was a low maintenance, easy-going, fun to be around kind of person. He probably had little tolerance for drama. I wish I could sit down with him now and have a beer. We could reminisce about all the fun times we shared as best friends in grade school. But, I waited too long…We are never guaranteed tomorrow, right? Carpe diem and all that other bullshit advice we hear and never heed.
I know is this. My heart aches for a friend that I once had who is no longer among the living. I also know this; for the family and friends who were close to him, those fortunate enough to share in his journey, with his passing, the sunrise is a little less bright, the spring rains are a little more melancholy, our hearts are a lot less full and our memories are a lot more precious.