Over the last few weeks, leading up to Remembrance Day, I’ve been reading a lot about war and separation and loss and suffering. I’ve thought about my ancestors and what they had to have gone through. I’m in the middle of Ken Burns’ Vietnam documentary. War portrayed on documentary film is all that more vivid. And so much more obviously wasteful and plainly pointless in most cases. It’s one thing to read a history book about a long-ago battle, it’s another thing to hear the words of those who survived those more recent battles. What they were thinking then and what they had been told at the time. And then what they know now and what they think now.
War is the most heightened and dramatic way we can lose our loved ones. Along with sudden disease or unexpected accidents, they are the most terrible and shocking ways to have people who are important to us leave our lives for good. There’s no denying the powerful emotions we feel when our friends or family disappear from our world in such tragic ways. But as awful as it may be, there’s an opportunity for some kind of closure under these circumstances, eventually, once the grief dissipates just enough for us to let a little light back into our way of thinking.
I don’t know how many people I’ve known over my lifetime. I would guess a lot. I’ve known dozens and dozens of people who have died.
I’ve had lots of extended family, though very little immediate family anymore. I never lacked for friends as a kid. I was usually pretty well-liked and I played sports and was good at school so that it never seemed to be anything I couldn’t look forward to most of the time. I worked with hundreds of people. I played music publicly for years and I met a lot of people that way. When I look at Facebook and I see I have about 250 friends there, it isn’t very much compared to a lot of people. I don’t really solicit friends aggressively. I mostly joined to see some distant friends’ kids grow up. But at one time, in this mid-sized city where I was born and lived in for most of my life, I knew a lot of people.
Out of the 250 FB friends, there are some whom I’ve never met. Some are friends of friends who seem interesting. Or who share interesting personal or political posts. Some are people I once knew for a short period of time or went to school with decades ago. But I would guess about a hundred of them are who I would call friends. One fella, who I went to school with for a year in grade five until he moved back to the States, I haven’t seen him in forty years. One woman, who I knew for a year in grade nine, I haven’t seen her since 1980. Her going away party was at the Hayloft. Or maybe the Marble Works, places that have been gone for generations. We sang Memories, by Barbara Streisand as she left for the airport.
Most of my best friends today, I knew by the time I was eleven. Almost all of them, I knew by the time I was twenty-two. But best friends and friends are different things and friends who aren’t best friends should not be discounted. They can help shape who we become.
I can scroll through that list and look at their faces and think about the last time I saw them in person. Think of the last time we hugged or had a beer or laughed together or worked a shift together or skated a shift together. The last time we had a band rehearsal or a basketball practice. In most cases, it’s many years if not several decades. When you get to be my age and you haven’t seen someone in thirty-five years, seeing them and thinking they might look old doesn’t make me feel good about myself. It makes me feel as old as my old friends are because I’m as old as my old friends are.
There have been only a handful of people I’ve cared about when, in the moment, I knew it was going to be the last time I would ever see them. And even then, I couldn’t be sure. But the hundreds of others I likely won’t see again, even if we live another thirty years, I didn’t know it was going to be the last time. Sometimes I may have suspected it but most times, I had no idea. None.
I may have not lost any friends to a war. I’ve lost a few friends to disease and accidents and murder and of course some family to old age. But I’ve also lost a hundred friends who I will never see again because that’s the way life goes. Twenty-five years ago, without Facebook and email, that would have been it. They would have simply disappeared and they may have caused a moment of wonder once in a while. Maybe during a canoe paddle, maybe while listening to a song, maybe because of a scent. But they’re gone. And we never got to say goodbye.
I could name a person from every letter of the alphabet who once meant something to me who I will likely never see again. And the last time I looked into their eyes, it never occurred to me it would be the final time. So I will.
So long friends. I wish I had known it was time to say goodbye. I hope you are well and if you remember me, I hope it’s with a smile on your face.