It came to me in a series of texts. Three classic Iphone beeps to be exact. Clearly, someone had a longer message for me, but it would have to wait. At the time, I was roomed with a patient removing sutures from his foot. The sutures were deeply buried and required that I pull them a bit harder to access the loop that needed to be cut. Going deep can be painful. But if you don’t go deep, you risk leaving suture behind and forming a nidus for infection. You risk an abscess. We both knew it, the patient and I. So he gritted his teeth and so did I. The texts would have to wait.
Once finished, I bid him goodbye, washed up and ducked into an empty and adjacent exam room. Letting out a sigh, I pulled my phone out of my pocket to look at the message. It was from my sister.
“Just got to the gym and there is a sign up on counter that shows memorial service for Chuck ——- (Tod, your high school buddy) I guess he passed on Wednesday…”
There was more, but it was detail. Chuck was dead. God help him. Chuck was dead. I sat in stunned silence. A nurse passed by the door. A voice and a laugh echoed from down the hall. Chuck was dead. And he was only forty.
I remember him. Yes. Yes, I do. He was the charismatic one. The stud in our circle of middle school friends. He was bigger than us, more confident than us, a bit wilder than us. But he was always the one we looked up to, wanted to emulate and sought for approval. And the girls loved him. Whether it was his sharp, stylish dress, his muscular physique or that flashing grin and infectious ever-present laugh, he was a magnet. We all wanted to be near Chuck. We all wanted to be like him.
Chuck was the first of my friends who came from a broken home. He lived with his mother and sister in a second story apartment behind a corner gas station. His father – a vision of a future Chuck with dancing eyes, a smokers’ cough and Rollie Fingers twisted moustache – lived three blocks away. Unlike what I ever envisioned, his parents got along quite well with an alternating innocent flirtation and an eye-rolling exasperation. They loved Chuck and his sister very much. And yet Chuck had an incredible independence. This, too, was intriguing to me and opened my eyes to new experiences with Chuck as my guide. We removed storm sewer grates and stooped through tunnels beneath the city. We would sneak out late at night, T.P. houses and meet girls. We slipped into movies through exit doors and, when caught, offered elaborate, incredible stories no one would ever buy. We never smoked or drank, but Chuck relayed to me experiences that, indeed, made an impressionable adolescent blush. But he never bragged. He was just sharing stories with a close friend. To be honest, there were times that I envied Chuck. And, yes, at times I couldn’t help comparing myself to him coveting his wit, his charm, his success with girls. Addressing this, my dad provided me his timeless wisdom in a phrase that I have never forgotten, “Let Chuck worry about Chuck.”
School years and summers would come and go. We both played football and shared classes. He exposed me to Guns ‘N Roses and golf. We rented movies and shot baskets in his dad’s driveway. But as time passed, we started to drift apart. I was in student council, choir and baseball. He pursued football and weight lifting. Our circle of friends enlarged and began to separate. Our passing in the hallway gradually morphed from planning our next outing to cordial, if distant, greetings.
Yes, at times we had our tensions. A couple of brutal blocks from him that laid me flat on my back during football practice didn’t sit well. There were times when I felt he bordered on bullying others. And then there was a spat we had when I said something particularly cutting to him. Years later, his mother told me that what I said hurt him deeply. I apologized to her and told her that it was a thoughtless, heat-of-the-moment comment that was more mean than true.
After high school, I saw him once or twice. Once, when we ran into each other at a fitness club, he sported a shaved head and was body-builder massive. With a wry smile and gruff voice, he told me he was on a professional wrestling circuit and had assumed the moniker, “Judas”. He winked at that one. We parted ways, exchanging numbers insisting we get together for a drink. We never did. A year or two ago, my sister ran into him and once again passed his number to me. “Call him,” she said, “he wants you to”. I never called him.
Our lives get busy and move in various directions. With our spouses, our kids, our jobs and a circle of friends which expands and contracts with life events, it is no wonder that we, at times, cannot keep in touch with old friends and cultivate new acquaintances. It is part of life’s journey that we walk and enjoy another’s presence for a season – sometimes more and sometimes less. But we can smile, bid genuine farewell and wistfully relish memories of the moments of grace God granted us through the company we had for the time we had it.
But what haunts me about Chuck, is what his mother said to me. This friend of years, of laughter, of deep discussion, of wide-ranging experiences – this friend who naturally and innocently had gone on a different path than I had. Did he know? Did he know that I never meant what I said? That the cutting remark was just a kid’s spite intending to wound, but not intending to scar. I remember talking to him briefly in passing after his mom had relayed this to me. He self-consciously dismissed it as no big deal and we both sought to extricate ourselves from an awkward situation. But, my God, did I look him in the eye, swallow my pride and say, “Chuck, I never meant to hurt you. In truth, there is so much in you that makes you special, so much that I have always admired. Do you understand that? Do you?”
But I didn’t.
A mentor once said to me,
“Don’t wait until someone is dead to give them flowers.”
I will give you flowers, Chuck. But I am sorry they are coming so late.
Please, if you read this, would you say a prayer or a Rosary’s decade for the soul of my friend Chuck and his surviving family? I know he will know these flowers when he gets them.