You hear it all the time: “People like him …” “Someone like her ...” I say it, too.
It's how we organize our lives and form thoughts. We categorize the people we know in general terms. The nice guys. The sweethearts. The needlers. The drama queens. The friends. The acquaintances. The rivals. The folks we'd just as soon not see.
But then one of them dies. Unexpectedly.
Only it wasn't just Someone Like Him. It was him.
And everything changes.
Generalities are replaced by memories that are quite specific.
“You know … I don't have a single bad memory of Robert,” said a woman I recognized from happier times. She greeted me by smiling and joining her arm in mine. “Well, except this one.” We laughed at his funeral.
But it was true. Not a single bad memory. And not because we limited our exposure to the possibilities.
He was just that sort of person. The sort of person who looked on the bright side without negating the tarnish.
His encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. His love of music and mirth. His ability to pinpoint a problem and separate it from the chatter of false fixes. His unwavering ability to be kind without ever losing his edge.
Bad news would always be followed by good news -- you just had to squint a little harder to see it.
As I stood with a roomful of his friends and family mourning his loss, the thing that struck me was how in all of the memories they shared I could picture him vividly. As if he were in the room. It was so much more comforting than I could have imagined.
And all the specifics came flooding back.
I remembered when we met ...
My friend's new boyfriend. Her fiance. Her husband.
In lockstep our lives seemed parallel. Marriage. Children. Career. Political affiliations. Hope. Setback. Hope. There were also long absences born of geography and obligation …. Our lives have a tendency to take us away from each other from time to time. Of course there were struggles, too.
But inevitably there was always a phone call that brought us back together. An appointed time and place, a new libation to share and something to celebrate. There is laughter and much preaching to the choir.
We all have these experiences, and the existentialists would say that we are all here in some giant circle repeating a life already lived. The heaviness of our existence is the weight of history bearing down.
And maybe it is true that in general our experiences are identical. We are born. We live. We die. Except that it's all new to us.
That each person we meet is not exactly like the next. My friend was unique as are his wife and his children. And his loss is as tragic for them as tragic can be.
My eyes sting whenever I think about the epic sadness of this moment. The uncertainty of this certainty.
In church, during the mass, I found myself tilting my head back to keep tears from spilling over. I was doing just as I waited outside of the church waiting to hug my friend. And that's when I saw it. A word, written in brick, on a building across the street. “Forward.”
A direction and a sign. A moment of pure understanding that going forward doesn't mean letting go. It just means traveling onward. Because when a person Like Him gives the gift of friendship, that gift only lightens the load.