My oldest friend and my best friend aren’t one and the same. My best friends, Lisa and Jeanette, have been my best friends since I was five and since I was twelve, respectively.
But my oldest friend was a boy who lived next-door to me starting in 1978, when I was four years old and had just moved with my family to the Silicon Valley from Wichita, Kansas.
He was a year younger than me, but smart as a whip. We played well together because we loved the same things—I had a bit of tomboy in me, and he had a sensitive side. We loved board games and card games and Star Wars and playing outside and going to parks and going swimming and everything else that a good late-1970s/early-1980s childhood involved. We were such good friends that I even went on vacation with his family every year for quite a few years. They had a timeshare beach house about ninety minutes south, and the highlight of my summers was spending several days there with them each summer.
We went to different elementary schools (my parents put me in an optional back-to-the-basics public school while he went to the local default public school), but we were still great friends. At my school I met and became friends with Lisa, and he met his own friends at his. But at home, we still played together all the time. We spent hours at the abandoned school across the street from our houses, playing on the playgrounds. (Back in the day, you could do that without parental supervision.) And when that was razed for new houses to be built, we spent hours exploring the construction sites after the workers went home for the day.
When I was twelve, we moved to another house across town, and my friend and I started to drift apart. At this time we were also due to finally attend the same school: We would both be at the local middle school. One day, when we had gotten together to swim, his mom pulled me aside and asked me not to talk to him at school, lest I embarrass him in front of his friends. That’s not how it sounds, really: At that age, girls hang around with girls and boys hang around with boys, and there’s a bit of teasing if the two mix. My friend and I had both been on the receiving end of plenty of bullying, and she just didn’t want things to be any harder on him than they needed to be. I understood that and abided by her wishes, though part of me now wishes I hadn’t.
On one of the first days of school, he came up to me and started a conversation. I spoke to him in a friendly way, but a bit standoffish, trying not to engage too much. I couldn’t forget his mom’s request, and I knew that at a certain level, she was right—he might get teased for talking to a girl. So we kept things at a formal distance—never not friends, but also not hanging out together.
In high school, we went to a large school and rarely saw each other. He was in my computer class, though, and we were targets for the teacher, who was a real piece of work. He had his class favorites, and my friend and I were not among them—nor were Lisa and Jeanette, actually. I guess he liked the more popular kids. At least we were in good company in our computer-class exile, right?!
After high school, we lost touch. I eventually moved out of state, and he went to college in northern California. But I heard from him once, by phone, when he was recovering from some sort of terrible brain hemorrhage. I don’t know the exact name of what he had, but I know what he shared with me: That he was feeling really odd in his room at school one day, that he was alone and called his friend to say he felt odd, and that she came over. And somehow, he got to a hospital, where they found that a tangle of blood vessels in his brain had essentially exploded. And later, they found that the tangle had been present since birth, and it could happen again at any time.
My friend told me he had to relearn everything. Everything. His beautiful, smart brain lost everything it knew how to do, and he had to start from scratch. But he did, and he fought his way back. He had residual problems, but he continued to work on rehabilitating himself.
We had a good talk that day, but we never spoke again. I regret that to this day. I’m terrible about keeping in touch, particularly by phone. I’ve never been a phone person; I’m more comfortable with writing.
A couple of years later, my mom and I got a call from my brother one morning. That was odd in and of itself—my brother never called. But he was calling because he had been reading the obituaries and saw my friend in them. The memorial service was that night, and he thought we’d want to know.
We did. My mom and I cried and cried, and then we called my sister and told her the news, and the three of us drove two hours south to the service. We had no idea what had happened, but we assumed he’d had another hemorrhage.
He hadn’t. From his dad’s eulogy, we learned the truth: that my friend had fought so hard, but that he was so upset by the way things were in his world that he just didn’t feel he could go on, and he ended his own life. In his childhood bedroom, where I had spent countless hours playing.
There’s more to his story than the brain hemorrhage, but it’s not mine to tell. I know the brain hemorrhage is public knowledge; I know I can talk about that. But the other things he struggled with may be private, so I won’t share them here. I’ll only share that it breaks my heart that he saw no other way out. I wish I would’ve called him after that last phone call. I wish he would’ve opened up to me about his other struggles. I would’ve supported him without question. A part of me wonders whether maybe that would’ve changed things, though a bigger part of me knows it wouldn’t have been enough. He had a terrific, supportive family: mother, father, and brother. If they couldn’t save him, I know in my heart that I couldn’t have either. But I wish I would’ve tried. I just didn’t know the pain he was in. During our last conversation, he seemed so upbeat.
His mom used to read this blog. I don’t know if she still does. Sadly, we have lost touch over the last couple of years. If she does, I hope this post doesn’t upset her. But I’ve heard that what hurts most is when people don’t even acknowledge that a loved one has died. So to her, if she’s reading, I want to say this:
I think about him all the time. He’s been gone sixteen years, I believe, but I think about him all the time. He was a beautiful friend to me, and he is not forgotten. I know his birthday was last week. I know he would’ve been forty-one. I thought of him on his birthday, as I do every year.
He isn’t forgotten. He touched my life. I still cry for him. He was loved, and he will never be forgotten.