These calls were life-affirming and natural. They reminded me that, despite living in a society that primarily endorses friendships between two people in a common season of life, there are no rule books. When one crosses the border into unchartered territory, there are untold lessons to be learned and joys to be felt.
Four days after my daughter was born, once the dust of the first sleepless nights had settled, I got around to announcing her birth to friends.
I texted her picture to Mr. Fred and wrote, “I have thought of you as I reflected on what you expressed about having your firstborn. I now relate to this ‘wonderfully magic’ time as a new parent.”
Within about five minutes, the phone rang.
Mr. Fred’s voice was tight, like it was when he talked of Pearl Harbor’s bombing or a plethora of other painful life experiences. He told me the baby was beautiful and asked how we were doing.
Without answering, I asked, “Are you OK?”
“No.” There was a long silence, and then his voice broke. “I have some bad news to tell you.”
When I learned his youngest son had died of a heart attack, I slipped down on the floor and wept along with Mr. Fred. He went on to tell me more about what had transpired. My heart broke.
That night, I remembered the emails I’d received from his children and how one had sent something extraordinary. I scoured my inbox and felt tears prick my eyes as I reread his youngest son’s profoundly poetic statements like, “I have carried [my father] with me every day of my life” and “I use his wisdom to direct me to whatever success I have and can point to an abandonment of that wisdom as a cause of my failures” and even the following in lined verse:
I remember him always being the smartest man in the room.
I remember him being generous without hope of reward.
I remember him as a loyal friend.
I remember him as someone who doesn’t let discomfort get in the way of obligation.
I remember him as a stern but loving dad.
I printed out the three-page-long message — a momentous elegy — and, along with a note of explanation, mailed it to Mr. Fred.
About a month later, the phone rang. Mr. Fred informed me he and Linda were in my neck of the woods and would like to visit.
When they arrived, I embraced Mrs. Linda and said, “I feel like I know you although we’re just now meeting.” I handed off Amadia, who snored on Mrs. Linda’s shoulder throughout the duration of our visit. I hugged Mr. Fred next, and we talked a while before he presented a gift for the baby. For once, I was the first of us in tears when I discovered a silver cup engraved with my daughter’s name.
Mr. Fred said, “I thought long and hard about a special gift for your daughter, since you have become so special to me. And I thought I’d give her this cup, one just like the engraved cup I had as a baby.”
We all sat in grateful, comfortable silence for a moment before Mr. Fred mentioned the letter. Choked up, he tried to explain what hearing from his son again had meant to him.
As far as friendships go, sometimes they can change you, inspire you or take on more meaning than either party could ever have guessed. Sometimes friendships can be crutches to help us stand in the hard times and reservoirs of delight in the good times.
Today, some three years after meeting Mr. Fred, I filed away one of his letters, the one that closed with a thanks for my friendship. I continue to call Mr. Fred, just to talk or beseech advice or laugh. We send emails. We snail mail notes. I’ve learned from what has mattered most to him throughout his life — things like cherishing the family built with the person you love most, taking the time to construct canoes with your best friend, and giving freely “without hope of reward.”
Mr. Fred has been a true gift to me — perhaps in a different sense than his concept originally implied, but a true gift nonetheless. I believe I have been the same to him.
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