A Writer’s Eulogy for Memories of Youth
This morning I learned that an old friend of mine passed away. I haven’t seen or spoken with Japhy for over 25 years. He belongs to that hazy, edge blurred film that is my adolescence. My own kids are traversing the treacherous chasm called teenager. Funny enough, I shared a story about this friend with my sons within the last two weeks. Hearing about his death left a hollow, burn spot in the array of polaroids I flip through when something triggers my nostalgia. I’m sad. I have no acquaintance with the man he became, but I’m sad the boy I knew no longer exists.
The boy I knew hasn’t existed for some time, no more than the teenage girl I used to be still exists. Life, experience and time wears away, molds and shapes us into the people we are. I’m glad I’m no longer that girl, she was kind of a mess, but my friends and I had some great times. I thought back while I walked the dog. We grew up in an 80’s movie. Maybe not John Hughes, but definitely something along those lines. I’m glad my childhood contained huge, dramatic stories. Sure they bite at the time, but in retrospect things happened!
I fell in love with my best friend’s cousin. On a camping trip….you see why I’m a writer. I think I was thirteen or fourteen. My best friend’s family is an overflow of Irish Catholic bluster. I loved being at their house because of the noise. There were aunts, uncles and cousins everywhere and when gathered it never failed to become a party. Understand, I grew up an only child. My youngest half brother is ten or eleven years older than me. When my parents gathered with people, those people were grown ups. Boring. The Hanrahans camped with us, but outside of that, my folks didn’t socialize with them. I wrote an entirely different story about those dynamics.
I spent most of my time at their house. My parents worked and I was a latch key kid. The Hanrahans had a jacuzzi and a trampoline. Come on, their house was much cooler. Someone the Hanrahans knew or maybe they owned a cabin at Lake McConaughy. They packed the kids, including me, up and took off for the lake. I’ve only been to Lake McConaughy twice and both times the weather disappointed. That trip the wind howled, the rain pelted and the air shivered. We spent most of our time cooped up in one cabin while the adults partied in the other. I’m sure we entertained ourselves. Cards, games…I probably had a book. We all slept on the floor. It was great.
Mike and his friends were three years older than Kim and me, just starting high school, football players, getting ready to drive. Those boys tantalized because they were OLDER. They also let us hang out with them. I don’t know if it was a directive from Aunt Jo, “Be nice to those girls or else.” It could’ve been the pity factor. They came off cooler and more mature. It could’ve been they were nice guys. Somehow we infiltrated their merry band and tailed along on their follies every chance we could. Kim, her sister Bonnie and me. I’m sure I harried those girls to shadow those boys out of lovesick eagerness, but we always ended up having fun.
As all young love does, mine lead to embarrassment and humiliation on more than one occasion. I remember a terrible mixed tape and some radio dedications. Face slap. I hankered after Mike for seven years. Oy, just thinking about it now is cringe worthy. Those first couple of years, he took in good-natured stride. I was his little cousin’s best friend. I don’t know if I wore him out over time or if he discovered I’d grown past little, but he started flirting back. We danced that inane rhythm for the remainder of my adolescence. One step forward, two steps back. My junior year we were officially sort of a couple. Yeah, I know.
I discovered in the most demeaning way that he had another girlfriend. All of those boys, people I’d thought of as friends and family, had known. His parents, who I adored as my own aunt and uncle, had known. I tucked tail and slunk away. That initial disgrace didn’t keep me away for long. It was impossible to avoid them. They were my best friend’s cousins. We’d become integrated into their social circle. I could either keep my head up and put on a brave face or be outcast. I kept my resolve for a few weeks. He reeled me right back in. Damn teenage hearts.
Japhy was part of that circle. A big, lumbering giant of a boy, he was cheerful and big hearted. For the next year and a half, I would hang out with Japhy until Mike deposited his girlfriend, who had a ten o’clock curfew, off at home. We’d meet at Japhy’s house afterward. I’m laughing as I write this….how young was I? During that time, Japhy and I grew to be real friends. Not just friends of friends or friends of cousin’s of friends. At the time, Japhy worked at a game/book store at the mall. He was a sci-fi geek. I was a sci-fi geek. We talked books and watched movies. On the evenings when Mike ‘couldn’t’ get free, we’d go eat or go bowling. We’d do something.
I was debasing and devaluing myself and Japhy never judged. I always thought he agreed to the arrangement because Mike was his bro, but looking back at how much time Japhy spent being my friend, I think now he kept the arrangement for me. Not once did he badmouth Mike for dangling me along. He never disparaged or criticized me for willingly being a chump. He stayed the course, rescued me when my car broke down. Helped me with school projects and even snuck me backstage at a concert once. I finally came to my senses after a degrading New Year’s Eve when Mike showed up unexpectedly with the other girlfriend in tow.
I didn’t see Japhy much after that. I cut off from the group to salvage the minimal amount of pride I had left. Moving on from those guys was a struggle. There were camping trips and drives through the countryside with the top down blaring Van Halen. Water skiing and hours of playing pool. Yes and drinking games….I still try to get my boys to learn One Fat Hen. We had so much fun.
I remember those times with longing and some rueful cynicism, but never regret. Japhy introduced me to one of my favorite book series. Books I’ve read to my kids and still love to this day. I’ve told my kids the story of standing backstage at McNichols arena because Japhy worked security at concerts. I forgot how many movies we saw because he worked at the Cooper Cameo. I have vivid memories of all of those boys and the excellent adventures we shared. Memories blurred and indistinct by age and perspective.
Like I said, we grew up in an 80’s movie. I love the line from The Big Chill that William Hurt’s character, Nick says. He states a fundamental truth about all of our childhood relationships. “A long time ago we knew each other for a short period of time; you don’t know anything about me. It was easy back then.” I haven’t seen any of those people in years, some I’ve never spoken to again. Mike married that other girlfriend and I made my own choices too. None that I’d take back, oh maybe one or two, but nothing to change what I did or who I’ve become.
I last saw Mike’s mother, Aunt Jo, at Bonnie’s wedding 18 years ago, wow really? Out of the blue, she hugged me and told me, “We never said anything because we hoped he’d choose you.” Yikes. I have no idea how that story would end, but I know as a writer this story is the better one. Kim sent me a fb message letting me know about Japhy. “Sad news. I just found out that Japhy Wilson died. I thought you would want to know given all the hours we spent with him, mike and dan and frank.” Yeah, I’m glad someone thought to let us know, even if he had already faded into a phantom of our past.
I’m sad for Japhy, but I’m really sad for the boy I used to know. Like William Hurt’s character said, I didn’t know anything about him, the man he grew to be. I am glad I knew the boy. I’m enriched by the kindness he showed and the fun we had. All of us. Death doesn’t bother me. Not the way it effects many people. I like to think of the life lived rather than the absence death creates. In this case, Japhy’s physical absence from my life was already dusty, but he’s ingrained in the stuff my life is made of. I can still turn those pages of memory despite the gap I feel. In those memories, Japhy remains, as we all do, indestructible and timeless.