Old friendships bring back specter of death

It started out innocently enough.  It started with the death of my high school coach, Tom.

Tom’s obit appeared last September in a small newspaper in my Kansas hometown.  Once I saw the obit I knew I had to write something.   It was as if Tom  showed up for work those four years and did nothing but punch in his timecard.

It didn’t mention he turned around the athletic program.  It didn’t mention Tom’s football teams were unbeaten his last three seasons there.  It didn’t mention his last basketball team reached the state semifinals and probably should’ve won the championship.

The article I wrote, a “Tribute” the headline said, was published a few weeks later, in October.

By then I had been in a self-imposed exile from my hometown for decades.  Too many bad memories.  Everytime I thought of my hometown I got a gut ache.   I had not seen my closest high school friends in 50 years.  Had no idea whether they had died.

But once the “tribute” appeared I was thrown back into the old days as surely as someone had rigged a time machine.   Letters and phone calls came rolling in.

At first it was all good.  I connected with my two best friends, former teammates and many others.   I was swept up in the moment, and as I mentioned to someone, it was like reclaiming my youth, a youth that had more or less been a blank page for so long.

But it was not long before reality closed in on the  good feeling.

By letting these people back into my life I came face to face with my own mortality.  Out here in the arid lands, a thousand miles away,  I could fool myself about death, that I could live, if not indefintiely, then for a long, long time.  But once back in the old circle of freindships I quickly saw that many of my contemporaries were dead or dying.  And what did the say about me?

First, there was Harold, my junior-year center when I was making my debut as quarterback.  Harold died suddenly of a heart attack.  Then Alfred, a teammate and best-man at my wedding with Brenda, died.  Mike, the doctor’s son who drove us to work one summer at a missile silo in his Karman Ghia convertible, bit the dust.  Others followed, and my mood, once blissfully ignorant, began to turn somber.

I recently received an email from one of my pals who described himself now as “the old man” who can’t keep up with the boys only a few years younger, going to bed at 10 o’clock.   Living out here in Arizona I could remember him as the leading scorer on our basketball team.  I can’t do that any longer.  I hated to hear him talk like that.

I’m not a glutton for self-punishment.  I wonder if I knew back in September what I know now, would I ever have written a “tribute” to my old coach, Tom?


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