Wednesday, July 02, 2008


In Which We Miss Our Friends...

My son's best friend moved away today.

They say the secret to becoming a successful writer is to make sure you start out by writing the saddest thing you can think of, so as to win your reader's sympathy. I suppose there are sadder sentences to write, but few catch on my heart in quite the same way as that statement.

Thomas' friend was leaving in the morning, so they said their goodbyes last night. Fewer things are more painful than watching friends part, especially if you've lived for a while and come to understand that not every friendship, no matter how special the bond and despite the aids of letters and phone calls and the Web, survives distance and time. It's a hard thing to realize that this might not just be the parting of friends, but the beginning of the end of a friendship. And it was even harder for me, because it's my son we're talking about, and I can't ease his pain. He just has to muddle along like the rest of us.

Thomas wanted to be alone for a while after his friend went away, so I left him to throw sticks into bushes and kick stones off the sidewalk, and other such therapeutic actions as children perform when their hearts are troubled.

I've moved a lot in my life, and can certainly remember the pain of leaving friends behind, although the first time we moved away, I was the friend who left. Over time, I've decided that if you have to part from your friends, it's good to be the one who leaves. At least you have something to do, somewhere to go. Being the friend left behind is just awful, because you're just one, left to haunt the playgrounds and the secret hideouts that were formerly explored and enjoyed by two.

Like Thomas, I was 9 the first time I was parted from friends. My family was moving to Kansas and, having lived in New Hampshire all my life, that sounded like excitement itself, right up until we got there and I realized that I was going to have to live in Kansas. But up until then, it was just a great overwhelming adventure, so overwhelming that I barely felt a tug of emotions at saying goodbye to my two best friends at the time, Mike and Chris. Mike was my best friend at school, but Chris was my best friend everywhere else. His family and mine were very tight and did a lot of stuff together. Either way, I barely remember our parting. I was a young 9 and didn't really think too much about the fact that I wasn't going to see Mike at school in the fall, wasn't going to be spending any time this summer--or really any others--in Chris' back pasture, playing G.I. Joe or Robin Hood.

Leaving Kansas, though, was exponentially harder, even though, again, I was the one who was going. I hadn't made very many friends in my three years there, but I'd made friends with Shawn, and that was enough.

Shawn had a tough life, certainly compared to mine, I always felt. He was the oldest of several kids, all of whom lived with his mother, and all of whom had different fathers. In the evenings, and especially on weekends, Shawn's mother tended to leave her eldest as a live-in babysitter to care for the other kids while she went out, a lot of responsibility to put on a 9-year-old, if you ask me.

I found all of this out one Saturday morning, not long after we'd moved to town. My Big Brother and I rode our bikes uptown to mail some letters for our parents. It was kind of early--we had to wait for the post office to open before we could mail the letters. But once it did, our duty was faithfully discharged, and we were free to go where we wished. We stopped by the Perry house, a big old house full of kids--BB and I each went to school with a Perry kid; I think everyone did--but astoundingly, no one was home, so we kept riding. On a whim, I suggested we take a long dirt road that ran along the back of town and as we did, I began to recognize the houses. I was still learning my way around town, but I soon realized I was on Shawn's street. We'd met only a few months earlier at a pick-up game of baseball up behind the school and I'd walked home with him after the game. BB knew where we were, although that was because he had a friend at the other end of Shawn's street who he'd met at basketball camp a month earlier, so he had decided to head down there.

But when I got to Shawn's house, the shades were pulled, and there was no car in the driveway. BB was about to leave me and go on down to his friend's house when we both heard a muffled clattering from inside and realized that either someone was home and hadn't bothered to open the blinds on this bright, beautiful Saturday morning; or someone had broken into the house and was ransacking the kitchen. So like idiots, we went right up to the front door and knocked. I learned later that Shawn was never supposed to answer the door when his mother was out, but he opened it fairly quickly when he saw us. He was holding his baby brother, who was screaming in his ear, while in the background another brother was screaming and his little sister was standing quietly by the door, wearing a dirty pajama top and nothing else.

My friend had a pretty reserved demeanor, but this morning he looked absolutely at his wit's end. "Can you cook?" he asked. "Mom didn't come home last night and there's no cereal or milk and I can't leave em to go up to the store and anyways there's no money and--"

It broke my heart to hear him so flustered, to see him so beset. I guess I was catching a bit of his panic. I looked up at my Big Brother. He took in the situation, gave me an owlish look, then some inner resolve of his--the resolve of all older brothers to break their younger brothers' balls--seemed to sag. "Yeah, sure," he said. "I can cook." And he could. BB had been cracking eggs with one hand and flipping omelets at the age of 8. Now at 12, he was practically a master chef and certainly in his element when he went into my friend's kitchen. He looked through the pantry, found some Bisquick and a can of condensed milk and proceeded to make pancakes for the kids, leaving Shawn free to change his brother's diaper, while I herded the others into a cramped bedroom full of bunks and proceeded to try and find clean clothes for everyone.

We had everyone at the kitchen table, fully dressed and wolfing down pancakes, when a blue car came tearing up the street and careened into the driveway. Shawn had recovered some of his reserve, but now he lost it again.

"My mom!" he hissed, then proceeded to shove us through the kitchen entryway out to the back door. "I'll get in SO much trouble if she sees I let you guys in. Thank you and all, but you gotta go!" BB and I knew what it was to fear a parent--our father was erratic in his own way, after all--so we hauled ass out the door and were vaulting Shawn's back fence before we realized we'd left our bikes laying on the front lawn. "Damn it, YOU'RE gonna go get them, you little ass-wipe!" BB said, his ball-breaking resolve now back in full force. "Made breakfast for all those little kids and I didn't even get one pancake!" he muttered as I left. I ran the long way around and retrieved our bikes which, apparently, Shawn's mom never noticed. I never found out why she was so late that Saturday morning, but it's possible she was in a condition considerably past caring about strange bikes on her lawn.

BB was kind of a big-mouth, so at home that night, he told everything to our parents. I cringed throughout the story, half-expecting that we'd get in trouble--why, I wasn't exactly sure. But instead, my mom just gave me a funny look. "Sounds like he needs a friend," was all she said. But it was enough.

Monday, after school, I saw Shawn at his locker. He'd been avoiding me all day, embarrassed, I think. He saw me coming and his expression got very sheepish. He opened his mouth to say something, but I stopped him by handing him a slip of paper.

"What's this?" he asked.

I never said a word. On the paper, I had written a set of instructions: "Walk 10 paces, then take a drink."

He turned, saw the drinking fountain down the hall and walked to it. He looked it over, looked at me. I gestured that he should keep looking. Eventually he found another note, taped to the bottom of the fountain: "Twenty paces west of the see-saws. Dig."

And so he went outside, following my little treasure hunt, which I had put together over the morning and afternoon recesses. It wasn't an elaborate thing (nothing like what I would send my future wife on, years later.) At last he found himself in one of the baseball dugouts in the field behind the school. In the corner, I had stuck a cardboard carton. When he opened it, inside were two things: a box of Captain Crunch cereal, and another slip of paper, this one with seven digits on it.

"My phone number," I told him. "Next time your mom's late, you've got a box of cereal. And if you need a jug of milk, just call me. I can bring it when I come over." My friend looked at me, smiled, then pulled out his wallet and carefully put the slip of paper inside.

Shawn called many times thereafter, although never for a jug of milk. I often went to his house to watch the kids with him (and while I was over there, we took turns planning all kinds of treasure hunts for each other), or helped him load up one of his brother's red wagons with laundry and together we rolled it into the Laundromat in town, then sat and read comics. Or sometimes I brought my little yellow-plaid-covered book full of lined pages and wrote a story, a solve-it-yourself mystery that I'd make up and read back to him. Shawn was good at those--or perhaps I was just really bad at them--because he nearly always solved them. Eventually, when we got tired of the stories, we decided to solve some mysteries for real and founded Detectives, Inc., our own private investigation agency, which we ran out of the back of a rusted-out mail truck in our neighbor's field. When we weren't doing that, we were doing, well, everything else together.

So when I left Kansas three years later, the day of my 12th birthday, it was with a heart far heavier than I ever imagined. On our last afternoon together, Shawn and I just hung out at my house, doing nothing special. Before he left, he gave me a combination birthday/going-away present (a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories), then we shook hands and that was it.

I stayed outside until dark, throwing sticks into the bushes and kicking stones in the driveway. Eventually, my Mom came out. "You know, I had a talk with Shawn's mother," she said finally.

"Oh yeah?" I asked. Shawn's mom and mine weren't exactly friends, but they were on cordial enough terms.

"Yes. I told her Shawn was coming to spend the summer with us as soon as we've moved in. She seemed fine with that--I suppose his sister is old enough to help take care of the other kids now. I think it's time he got a summer off, you know?" I did know. And Shawn did come and spend a few summers with us. We also wrote to each other all the time, and very occasionally called one another. Despite the distance, we stayed close for many years, well through the rest of our respective childhoods.

Although it's impossible to know, I'd like to think we would still be in touch today, but when he was 20, Shawn killed himself (as I've written about here and here). And yet, Shawn never stopped being my friend, nor I his.

Years later, when I was in Topeka for a magazine assignment, I called the town where his family had settled and got hold of the clerk responsible for the town's cemetery. She found my friend's grave on a map. The map was too big to fax to me, so she gave me walking directions from the main gate. I arrived there late one Saturday afternoon. I followed the directions, which I had written out in a series of paces--20 paces to the Jordan monument; 80 paces to the Jameson plot--a final treasure hunt that led me at last to my friend's grave.

It's impossible to know what combination of experiences and words, spoken and unspoken, written and unwritten, will conspire to keep friends together. I have friends I've known for 25 years and with whom I can share one 5-minute phone call every few years and that's enough. I have other friends who I strove mightily to maintain contact with, writing them epic 20-page letters and sending them huge expensive care packages overseas, only to have the friendship peter out after a year or two. My friends Chris and Mike, the first friends I was ever parted from, fall somewhere in the middle.

Chris and I wrote to each other off and on and visited each other very occasionally. Still, we were friends enough that he came to my wedding and even danced at the reception (although I found out later he did so with a broken foot). Now, he's good pals with BB, of all people (both share a passion for guns, so I guess it makes sense).

Mike never wrote a letter to me, and I've seen him maybe four times in the past 30 years. The second-to-last time I saw him, we were teens and we got into a bit of an argument over a comic-book trade (Brief digression for the comic nerds: He had a small stack of old, battered Marvel comics that I wanted and kept holding out for a bigger and bigger stack of Batman comics from me. We completed the trade, but I felt pretty raw about it. A few years later, I found the stack in a box in my parents' house and saw it contained a copy of Hulk #180, so I guess I had no room to bitch). But then he showed up at my parents' funeral and it was like we'd never been apart.

I lived in Kansas for only 3 years, but that was enough to make Shawn my friend for life, and maybe even a little bit beyond.

Last night, I was downstairs in the basement, picking up toys and generally tidying things up when Thomas found me. He sat and watched me for a while, silent.

"How you doin'?" I finally asked.

He exhaled, a long, shivering sigh, and I realized he'd been crying. Suddenly, I felt like joining him. "Just sad," he said, his voice cracking a little. "Sad that my friend is gone."

It was on the tip of my tongue to remind Thomas that he was in an era of unlimited cell phone minutes, of Web cams and live chat. I wanted to assure him that distance didn't matter when good friends wanted to stay in touch.

But instead, I just said, "Me too, buddy. Me too."

From Somewhere on the Masthead

I was 10 when Debbie moved away. That says ut all, or mostly.
I moved too much when I was growing up. Come to think of it, it was right around this time of year each time. This post really hit home for me. And I was the one who always moved away...
Alrighty, crying during my work day, I should learn not to read this during work. Amazing, touching, brilliant writing as usual MM....When are we going to have the Blaze kidnapping book come out?
I was always the one leaving too. And I just left again, a couple of close friends and some cherished traditions.

Don't like it one little bit.
My older daughter (now 7) faced this last summer. She did OK, but the mother of her good friend was a close friend of mine, too, so it was tough on the grown-ups: we were sad for ourselves and for our girls. Now the same daughter has strengthened another close friendship with a girl who'll be leaving next summer. I find myself waffling between encouraging her to play with other friends so it won't be so bad and spending as much time with this one special friend as she can. Truly, I don't know what is better for her on this one, so I just don't say either and let her decide on her own. I know she'll live through it and make more friends. But, I tell you, I still dread that day.
The daughter going off to Cal next year had her best friend move to South Africa, freshman year of high school.

God that was hard. Did not matter in the least that they were older.

I'll keep a good healing thought for Thomas.
my grandfather passed a week and a half ago. i haven't grieved for him, mostly because i feel like there's a lot of pain in my life at this moment and i just can't handle one more thing. i know this isn't good, but i've been in denial that it's something i need to do.

then your post brought tears to my eyes and i was able to let it all out. thinking of my best friend, when he got married, and how i realized as i drove away from the wedding reception that i hadn't just said goodbye to my friend, but had said goodbye to the best friendship i've ever had. god, i miss him still so much, it's been 8.5 years and the wound of him no longer being in my life feels as fresh as if his wedding was yesterday.

after a good cry, everything is a little better. thank you.
I had a good friend move away when I was 10. Wasn't easy. And my nephew really missed his best friend when he moved at about the same age. All part of the sucky things about life, I guess.
We had just finished second grade when my best friend moved from pittsburgh to New Jersey. I still wonder what ever happened to him.
I still remember when my best friend moved away when we were 10. I have not seen or heard from her in years, but I remember that good bye like it was yesterday.

A very touching sad about your friend Shawn.
MM, you really know how to put a story out here that really gets you, right inside, where people live. Down deep in the heart as I think, remember those with whom I have parted company over the years. With the exception of when I moved back home from working in D.C. for 8 years, back in 1972, leaving my best friend behind there, the partings here then have all been of the very final type. This just reminded me of so many of them and also, of some great friends I've had here all along too that I dread the thought of ever having to say goodbye to them. I think tomorrow will be a good day to remember to call my good friend in D.C. that I left behind 36 years ago this coming August. It's time for another of our sort of annual phone calls.
I'm crying during my work day too. This post really hit home for me. You really are an amazing writer, Magazine Man.
I can very much relate. Growing up a military brat, I was both the one to move away and the one to watch friends move away on many occasions. Sadly, in most cases, we didn't keep in touch in spite of my best efforts.
We recently went through a similar experience with my two sons' best friends who lived across the street moving away. Having been though it, I remember how much it hurt, and I really felt bad for my boys to be going through this experience for the first time (and probably not the last).
Thanks for sharing another very well written and heart-wrenching post.
Your stories always conjure up some hidden memory tucked down inside me. This morning; tears.

So sorry for Thomas... Now he will look for a friend to hang with and it will seem like all the other kids he knows are already paired as best friends. Well, that's the way it was with me. I preferred moving and did quite a lot of that too with my dad being in the service.

Please give him big "HUGS" from this old farmer~
I moved when I was nine. It was only to the next town over, so I thought for sure my friends would stay in contact with me and I'd still see them all the time. One made some half-hearted attempts for awhile, but it was like I was completely forgotten when I left. It would have hurt less had I moved 1000 miles away. I was never really able to make any friends after that.
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