Thursday, October 06, 2005

Passing Through

When I was six, my family moved from the Polish ghetto of 13th Street to a somewhat less ghettoized 10th Street, and I met Richard Flack. He was a slight and fragile kid, other-worldly, and lovely, and he became my immediate best friend.

I can't pin down why at that age two kids would be so attracted to each other. Maybe it was because we shared a name and were both fairly quiet, or maybe Richard was, simply, my first love. I don’t have a photo of Richard, and some fifty years later I can’t even picture him. When I think of Richard I see a picture of myself, some few days after an appendectomy, too thin, and very pale.

Richard lived completely down the street, around the corner, and halfway up the next block from my house, and for a six year old that walk was a great adventure. Turning the corner from 10th Street was stepping into the unknown - a whole new place where everything was different, the rules changed, and the outcomes were uncertain.

Richard’s house was in the middle of the block, set back from the sidewalk, and fronted by a grassy embankment. The house was frame and siding, post-War construction, not at all like the houses on 10th street which were bigger, older, and somehow more substantial.

We'd play in his front yard - mostly jumping off the embankment pretending we were parachutists. We’d spin around the sidewalk, hands stretched above our heads holding our invisible guy-lines, eyes to the blue sky that held our imaginations aloft. We’d land, pretend to pack our chutes, and scramble back up to launch out again and again. Sometimes we would pretend the street was a great river filled with crocodiles and snakes, and we had to escape from some pursuing danger by swimming our way across. We would get caught in whirlpools and cling to each other as we struggled back to shore. Sometimes we’d be surrounded by swarms of deadly sea-snakes that we’d have to hack and slash our way through with our trusty Bowie-Knives, or machetes. There was nothing in our world we couldn’t save each other from.

For some adult reason Richard and his family moved, and instead of turning right at the corner onto what had become friendly, though still foreign terrain, I now had to take a left and cross wide and busy 10th Street.

Across the street and on the corner was an abandoned church shrouded by a gigantic chestnut tree, guarded by a wrought iron fence and almost hidden by an overgrown garden; all dark, inaccessible, and scary, and I would hurry past, afraid to look into the grounds, intent on Richard’s sunlight.

Richard’s house was again set back from the sidewalk, so we’d play in the front yard, but our games were quieter, calmer. Cars, trucks, and toy soldiers filled our time, and Richard’s mother would call him in earlier. Our hours together seemed to get shorter and shorter. One day my Aunt Florence told me I couldn’t visit for awhile because Richard was sick.

Eventually Richard’s mom called my Aunt Florence and asked that I come over. It was the first time I’d ever walked up to his front door, and both the distance from our familiar sidewalk, and the door itself seemed huge, and I felt very small. Richard didn’t come down from his bedroom, but his mother met me at the door, and walked me upstairs. Richard was sitting on his bed, looking paler, and more fragile than ever. Even his voice had diminished. We played on the floor - soldiers and trucks, but not for long, and in a very subdued way. When it was time to go home I felt like I was really leaving him, not just going to come back another day, and it turned out to be the last time we played together. My aunt told me he was very ill, and it would be a long while before he got better.

It was probably a few weeks later that my aunt told me Richard had had leukemia, and had died.

I didn't know what leukemia was, and I sure didn’t know anything about death. Even after visiting the funeral parlor and seeing him in his casket all dressed up in what would have been his little white First Communion suit, I didn't understand what dying meant. There he was, just lying there, in a room full of adults, him and not him at all. That body was not my best friend. The event was a “viewing,” and my aunt and I had to kneel at the open casket and pray for Richard’s soul. Not a prayer came to mind. She encouraged me to touch him so I would understand he was gone. He felt like cold wax.

I had felt removed from Richard because he was sick and we hadn't played in awhile, but that was more like he was someplace I couldn't visit. It felt a little like when he had changed houses, only he had moved further away, but now, there was this thing, this cold, wax, thing that was supposed to be my friend, and I didn’t understand. I was frightened, sad, out of place, and out of body – a traumatized visitor from Planet Childhood.

I’m not from a family of talkers, or folks who show their emotions, and I don’t think the occasion was discussed beyond who was there, and how I conducted myself. I think I would remember crying, but I don’t. The events following our visit to the funeral home have that quality of a dream that you remember upon awakening but just can’t quite recall.

There was no longer any reason to walk down Richard’s street, but once I did, and when I passed his house it felt empty in the same way Richard’s body felt empty in the funeral parlor. I didn’t know if his family still lived there, but I hurried past because being there scared me, and for some reason I was afraid of being seen. It seemed a little like trespassing. That once convinced me Richard was gone, and we wouldn't play anymore, but I missed him enough to know we would always be friends.

I’ve lost friends and family since. I know those folks are dead and gone, and I don’t expect to meet them in heaven, but it’s impossible for me to say, “That’s it.” Once I’ve let someone into my life I become a changed person. To love someone is to drink them in, and some part of them becomes part of me. In the physical sense it may be a mannerism, a tone of voice, or a phrase that I find myself using. When I catch myself in one of those moments, I smile, and think, oh, that’s Reggie, or Aravind, or R.A, and go about my business comfortable with the recognition. Happy, if fact, that I’ve known someone that well, or loved them that much. But there’s a deeper place than mannerisms that feels like the blood in my veins, and that’s the after-life - where Richard is, and where all my loved ones quietly reside.

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