Often people tend to undervalue the people out on the fringe of their social circle – friends of friends, former co-workers and their friends, e-quaintances, and so on. I advise against it. While it is difficult to stay in touch with everyone you have ever known, even the smallest role becomes a gaping wound when it is taken from you.
Last week, a former colleague passed away in his sleep. I hadn’t seen him face to face for several years, but we kept in touch here and there. He had been a DJ for some time, and I kept saying “One of these days I’m going to get out there and see you in action. It’s far, but when I can I will.” I never did make it, and while I can say for a fact it was not really in my control whether I could take an evening trip, I know if I had really pushed myself I could have at least I could have stopped by to say hello, shake his hand, and catch up on recent events.
This young man was vivacious, courageous, a good son and father, a good friend, and there was always some sort of smile on his face, even if it were temporarily upside down. I never really knew any of his friends except for those we both knew from work, never met his family, knew nothing about his childhood, and had never met any of his brother firefighters. I went to the memorial service last night, and while I knew he was well-liked I was astounded by how many people there I had never met before. I counted, it was ALL of them. Mark had roots, he had branches, and he was always there for people if they needed him, and was standing by if they didn’t at the time.
Compared to most of his friends, I barely knew him, but I knew what I needed to know to count him as a friend. This man, not even thirty years of age, was a presence on the periphery of my life, as I was in his. I hope that I was the best acquaintance I could be, as he certainly held up his end. If you needed a laugh, he would provide. If you were upset with someone, he was always on your side even if you were wrong and needed help finding your way. If you didn’t want to see something, he would take a picture with his phone and text it to you. I can’t imagine taking my own grief and multiplying it a hundred fold as it must be for his family.
He is not the first friend to pass on this year. Several months ago, my friend Mary lost her fight with cancer. I didn’t get to see her often either, mostly because of distance. The first time we met was for a blind date, and while it was perfectly clear that we were not going to go beyond friends, it was clear that we would be friends. I didn’t know too many of her friends, other than our mutual friends, but she and I had a small bond of trust and respect that allowed us to freely discuss both her health and mine, our thoughts on the future, our thoughts on coffee, and whatever else came up.
She had been wary of having a relationship earlier in her life, but as she found herself fighting for her life she finally found that it was going to be a decision she would regret. I can’t really describe the feeling of talking about changing pace, settling down, and finding love and happiness with someone I knew had been ill and was only in a temporary remission; those thoughts and conversations tore me apart as I sat by her hospital bed knowing she was heading home for hospice care and had little time remaining. I did everything I could to make sure she knew how much we all cared, and the effort was rewarded by the knowledge that she was comforted and would never be alone.
Over the preceding years I have learned of the passing of respected professors, family members of friends, even someone I dated in college. While many of these people I never really expected to see again in person, knowing who they were and what they gave to everyone around them made their loss very real. Dr. W. David Hobbs, a piano professor I had for some keyboard classes, was one of everyone’s favorite teachers. He brought life to his corner of the back hallway upstairs in the music building, and learning of his loss to cancer was just heartbreaking.
I suppose the “moral” of this is to never take anyone for granted, whether they are your best friend, lover, teacher, family, the butcher, the local barkeep, or someone who you only met once. There is more to it than that, though. Be sure to experience these people, allow them to affect you and leave an impression in your heart. Let down the walls, let people in. It hurts to lose people you care about, but it hurts much worse to find that you lost someone you should have cared about but chose not to. Don’t discount your acquaintances, they are a part of you whether you want them or not.
Lastly, be open and honest with people, because someday it will be your turn to depart. Don’t leave people wondering who you were on the inside.