A recent contact from my oldest friend sends me upstairs to the attic of my memories…
The apocryphal story was always told that our mothers met one day, liked one another immediately, and spontaneously tossed their toddlers into a playpen. From there the two boys became pals for life. Like most tales told many times over, it probably contains a fair amount of exaggeration. While our mothers were always friendly, they were never close. Nevertheless, what is certain is that my friendship with Doug goes back now over 50 years.
We lived on the same street about five houses away from one another, both of us fortunate never to have moved during childhood. At no time were we ever the new kid in school, nor did we experience the humbling ordeal of having to make new friends in strange surroundings. Instead we were able to grow up in the same homes from birth all the way through high school graduation. Snowball fights, games of tag, hide and seek, backyard whiffle ball, and touch football were the routines of our relatively carefree upbringing.
We were the offspring of parents who rode the crest of the great postwar boom. Our immediate outside world was a suburban depiction not all that dissimilar at least visually from the family TV shows of the era. Inside the home, not so much (to my knowledge, our mothers vacuumed floors in bare feet or slippers, not high heels). But whenever I now happen upon the opening and closing credits of Leave it to Beaver, it’s remarkable in hindsight how much of its backdrop reminds me of my own childhood environs. Peace and Prosperity Republicans lived right next door to A Time For Greatness Democrats. Except for the run-up to an election, politics was rarely openly discussed. Twenty-four hour cable news and its insidious fissure on public discourse had yet to be invented.
All of us being a part of the same race, color, and approximate socio-economic standing, the only contrast that ever really materialized involved religion, which thankfully manifested to polite curiosity rather than enmity. To the extent that critical judgments were made about each another, they were almost universally connected to someone’s athletic prowess or ability to expertly memorize the statistics of our local sports teams. Indeed, if one failed to show any brilliance on the ball field, then you had to show substantial mental familiarity in the details of the Detroit Tigers team roster. It wasn’t good enough to be able to recite the starting position players; you also had to be able to recall their batting averages, the number of home runs hit, and the won-loss records of starting pitchers. Early academic achievement in school eluded me, but I sure as hell always knew Mickey Lolich’s earned run average.
As we clumsily navigated into our teens, Doug and I each began to explore boundaries outside our neighborhood. While we were still the best of friends along with a wonderful core group of our peers, we also began to have distinct and separate interests from one another. He discovered marching band and tennis, I went with track and student government. Rock music minutiae began to compete with baseball, and I also recall long, hushed discussions in his basement about female anatomical features and characteristics. Sometimes we were even accurate. Will you settle for appropriate?
We eventually learned to drive, began to date girls, and got part-time jobs. Doug was always a better student than me, and when it came time to eventually apply to colleges he was accepted into every one to which he had applied. I ended up staying home my first year and attended community college before finally being accepted into a university. We all tried at least once to visit one another at our respective schools, engaging in the decidedly non-academic pursuit of girls, beer, and weed. Rites of passage were quickly happening for all of us.
I finally moved away from Michigan after college. Doug was the first of our friends to get married (to a girl we all knew and liked from school), and he phoned me not once but twice to be his best man. I was not financially in a good place at the time, and in a decision I’ve regretted many times since over the years, I had to turn him down because I just couldn’t afford to travel back. We were both literally and figuratively in different places.
The years marched forward, more marriages among our core group took place, and I being the sole one living out-of-state, continued to miss these milestone events. By the time I reached my mid-to-late thirties, I realized that my friendship with Doug had come to a cordial but remote spot. Holiday cards were sent, emails and occasional phone calls were made, and we thankfully did have the chance to see each other during business trips or visits to see family. But by virtue of the distance between us, plus the growing demands of each of our marriages and families, we had grown apart. Sometimes it was three years or more before we had any meaningful contact. Conscious of this, he would sometimes remark how the distance itself wasn’t as much of a factor as we each thought. “Lee lives in the same town, and Keith is less than a half hour from my house. Yet I’ve seen them each only once in the last year.”
We were all very occupied.
Then age 50 just creeps up on you and things happen. Marriages break-up, kids leave the nest, and parents start to pass away. In the midst of my first marriage ending, Doug was suddenly wrestling with a health condition that his doctors were not able to explain. Though he was loath to discuss it, eventually I began to make regular phone calls to talk to both him and his wife about what was happening. For a short time I eagerly followed-up on medical visits he had made to specialists. I was calling his home weekly, sometimes speaking to him, other times his wife.
A referral was made by his doctors to the Mayo Clinic for an examination, and I offered to fly there to be there with the two of them. He politely turned me down, wanting instead to work through the matter privately. But I know he appreciated the gesture, and in my own small way I tried to make up for the earlier slight of not attending his wedding.
Along with his doctors, he eventually found a way to cope and manage the health issue. The matter was no longer urgent or as threatening as it had been, and it became less and less of a topic to discuss during our occasional phone calls.
Mid-life moments for the both of us then began to take precedence. His oldest son graduated from college, moved away to another state, and then quickly got married. I remarried, got transferred after a long stay in California, and then just as quickly retired and relocated yet again. It was hard enough to keep everyone current about my own situation, and I started to lose touch with many friends and even family. The relationship with Doug again returned to a mostly dormant state.
Then out of the blue recently I received a text message from him. He was in Washington, DC on business and wanted a restaurant suggestion. I quickly called him up, and we laughed that I was giving advice about where to eat in a city I hadn’t lived in for almost 15 years. We caught up yet again, laughed at some old references and inside jokes, and made promises to again keep in touch.
I’ve long taken for granted the relationships that I’ve made over the years. Everything at the moment has always seemed more important in that abstract pecking order we all subconsciously create. Yet, in the middle of the night when I’m sometimes awakened from a deep sleep, I go right back to that boyhood street of mine. I’m holding the whiffle ball bat and announcing that I’ll be Al Kaline, while Doug sneers back and challenges me with his best Bob Gibson fastball.
You have to work to sustain something that’s meaningful to you because if you’re not careful it’ll all be lost.
“Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.”