A real, true and imperfect friendship comprises moments of turmoil and remarkable understanding, exquisite pain that cannot be uttered, joyous exclamation. There are lights of understanding of the love of vibrant life and candles lit in darkest grief; death is the great divide and sadly has the last word.
It was twenty years ago this August that my best friend Walter Helming, my greatest and most dear friend in my long life, drowned in the grey waters of the Atlantic Ocean at Revere Beach, Massachusetts. Today, July 19, 2013, I celebrate what would have been his 56th birthday. Imagine: we would have been fast and selfless friends for an astounding 49 years.
I am honored that his lovely sisters Evon and Patricia will help me quietly mark the occasion. It is quite a milestone for the three of us to reach.
Evon was six years old when I met her; she loved to wear her favorite light blue dress and Mary Janes of black patent leather. She was (and is) quick to learn and has an astoundingly wry sense of humor, and did even as a child. Evon knows me better than anyone else on the planet and she certainly knows how to make me laugh. And as a rule she’s rarely wrong about a fact, and that’s a fact.
I first held Patricia in my arms 45 years ago mere days after she was born. It seems barely possible that so much time has passed since she first smiled up at me. She has children of her own now, beautiful and smart like herself. I’m very proud of her and have always been, but she knows that (as if there was ever a question). Evon recently called her ‘my sunshine’ and if there was ever someone who could be described thus it is Patricia.
Walter and I were seven; me fat, taller and sort of dorky; he shorter and a wild live wire of a boy like a walking stick of dynamite. He was a live wire as an adult, too, I’ll tell ya. Me, well, thin for a while and now as fat and dorky as I ever was.
Needless to say I love both Evon and Patricia very much and they are my sisters as surely as any related to me by bond of blood. The anniversary of Walter’s birthday is certainly bittersweet for the three of us without their brother here but today we have to acknowledge a time of celebration.
There have been marriages, loves aplenty, friends and others come and gone in such a time span, a veritable lifetime. Walter and I were very lucky in that our friendship lasted 30 years before he met his end in the cold waters of the North Shore; anyone that has a friendship of that length or measure knows the tone and the tambor in which I speak.
Walter and I met on my first day at my new school. My family had recently moved to Plymouth, Connecticut, a quintessentially bucolic New England town. We met directly in front of my house and were introduced by a kid I met a couple of days before named Jurgen who ironically introduced me to Walter as ‘his new best friend’, which was not to be the case. Walter and I took one look at each other and I swear to you from that moment on we were spiritually inseparable.
We left everyone (including poor Jurgen) in our dust as we walked along, beginning a lively and spirited discussion that was endure for as long as we were together. While I cannot remember a single thing that was said, I certainly remember just about everything else: the warmth of the sun on that morning; the smell and the itch of my new and uncomfortable school clothes; the shining face of my new friend, his blond, characteristically unruly hair, his ruddy cheeks and his wide-eyed, piercing countenance to which I was inevitably drawn. How delighted I was to make such a new friend on my first day at my new school.
We grew together, very much individuals and vastly different in many important ways but grow together we did. We shared our secrets and adventures, sorrows and discomforts. We caused plenty of trouble and pretty much enjoyed every moment of it. We loved each other with unspoken certainty, in the same inexpressible way and with a similar and understood intensity. We didn’t take our mutual love for each other for granted. It was just accepted as the way things were, a simple fact and unnecessary for us to over-analyze or expound upon. There was never a need for that.
He tried my patience on a million occasions (and vice versa) but more often than not I gave him the patience he needed and he did the same for me. We saved one another repeatedly from harm both real and imagined and we both encouraged each other to learn the world about us with both book-smarts and street-smarts; as a result we both became enamored of philosophy, poetry, painting, arts general and specific of all kinds and much, much more. We shared the excitement of learning and the joy it brought but we always did so in irreverent ways and with great humor and candor, too.
And he was so attractive that he had more girlfriends than anyone I ever met, some that I knew and loved and some that I certainly did not but many more than I was to ever have. And I assure you, he was trouble and for the most part they loved it; it seems all he had to do was look at them and they fell hard. Impressive, something in retrospect that was both a gift and a curse of sorts. He had been staying in Revere with a girlfriend when he drowned.
Sadly I was not there to save him on that August day that is indelibly etched into my life. I was so very angry with him for going where I could not and for leaving me behind. How very angry! To say that I was devastated would be ridiculously simple. When it came to his death just as when it came to his life there was nothing simple about him. To this day it remains the single most difficult day I have experienced.
There’s much more to any story of a friendship than pain, for every real, true and decent friendship has some pain, misunderstanding, error and omission. These are cause for growth in a relationship. But there is great love to speak of, too, and unswerving brotherhood, incredible kinship and joys that have no equal, real and tangible joys experienced to the very core of being.
We made things happen. We were alive, vital.
He brought me comfort in ways perhaps impossible for others to understand. I could depend on him to be the saint, the bad boy, the crazy man, the untamed wild thing, the dark to my light, the sometime-sanity to my uncertain world. We shared something that in all of my life has not nor ever can or will be duplicated.
When we were young we had many questions to ask, real and good questions, questions that were vital to our emerging understanding which we explored with naiveté and good intent. But the impatience and the questions that youth asks are not the reflections and decisions that age and substance make. The most distressing consequence of his death has been the end of our conversations. What questions would we consider now? What would his thoughts be if he was here and his insights included all the missing years of experience he lost in death?
I believe we would be asking just as many questions of each other and the world as we did when we were so young and perhaps many of the very same questions. It is sad that I cannot ask him the questions that I have for him and get his answers, to listen to and consider his changed and matured viewpoint.
We had a very special form of communication. We could be in the middle of playing a gig to a bar-room full of really loud, drunk mosh-pit maniacs and with a single eyebrow lift he could have an entire comment to make, one that I immediately understood. We would have a conversation without ever uttering a single word.
We could do this because as friends we had established a perfection of communication and understanding. So forgive me for dwelling on twenty years of unanswered questions that he perhaps could have answered with a single wry laugh.
There isn’t a day even after an astounding 20 years since he left us behind that I don’t talk to him in my head. I spend time wondering, wishing, and missing. I am fairly certain I will never again have a friendship of that quality, never again of that caliber. I sometimes think that if only I could talk to him for even a moment I might come to a closure of sorts; but that is wishful thinking, magical thinking. I know that cannot be.
As to this monumental loss there is never closure to be found or indeed, even needed or required. I bear the loss as I always will.
Some say time heals all wounds but I know that to be false. Time doesn’t change; time changes you and your point of view. I eventually came to learn that while one can forgive the bad and celebrate the good, one cannot forget a life so lived within the close proximity of your heart, no matter the person; when you hold someone in your heart that closely there is no forgetting, there is no closure, only scabbed wounds, old scars. But there are also many sweet memories that come unbidden to bring a smile and it is fortunate that there are many more wonderful memories than those that bring pain.
But there are occasional painful memories. For me one of the most painful of memories is the very last time I saw him. We entered the train station in Revere so that I could catch a train back to Boston. We looked at each other and smiled and waved as I went down an escalator to the train. I watched as he gradually left my line of sight. That single and simple moment is frozen in my mind forever and I have had countless dreams involving that moment, too.
It has taught me that each hello or goodbye can be the last and that in cherishing the few moments we have together, all of us, we honor each other. This is the truest expression of humanity and while some may believe it to be cliché I have found it to be truth, a truth that proclaims, ‘I am of your tribe. I am one with you. We are one and we are the same. We are each other.’
We do not have the luxury of going back in time to change our lives or an opportunity to bring our loved ones back. Still, I cannot help but wonder what might have been, and I often ponder all those possibilities that might have transformed themselves into a long future; instead that future did not come to pass for him or for me, either.
I often speculate as to where we might have found ourselves in a future that never had a chance to play out: perhaps to end up together as old men with a million memories to laugh over and a hundred thousand sorrows for which to atone; maybe he would have had a surprising life of good experience, a happy, satisfying life. How sad that we who loved him had to bear the unexpected.
As I age and my time on this earth progresses I find within me a brooding sense of the inevitable, a sense of time stretching out to meet me. He may have found the answers to some of our most profound questions first but eventually I will come to share that knowledge most definitely. But one cannot be sad over inevitability; we can only wonder over possibilities and lost potential.
Walter is as real and as loved now as he was in that instant when we first met, the instant I decided that he was my friend for as long as I lived without question, unconditionally and wholeheartedly. He is past the troubles of the soul, the troubles of the world; if there is peace for him, he has found it; as to whether or not there will be peace for me, who can say? Certainly not I. It’s too early to tell.
When I think of the enormity of my world and the gaping hole that his absence has left within it I am shaken to my foundation to this very day. It is an acute loss which makes me feel that being a temporal human is more than I ever cared or wanted to know or to experience. There is nothing to be done but to accept this state of being, for we all come to experience the consequences of our humanity; indeed, we are forced to know that experience precisely because we are human and temporal.
This time, my reality, this now, this very moment becomes ever more precious for having had a friend like him in my life.
Yet on reconsideration I find there’s really no past tense when it comes to Walter; he remains and will perpetually be my best friend to the end of my days. And as far as I’m concerned I’m not mad at him anymore; of course I never really was and could never have remained so.