“I didn't say you had to let him win. I just said if you guys are playing something and he's winning … just … uh … let him stay ahead sometimes.”
“I don't understand, Mom.”
“Someday you will. Just trust me on this, OK?”
“Yeah, well, I'll do it, but I don't like it. Mark is sometimes very mean to me,” I explained. “I like to beat him at games.”
“Mark can't do all the things you and the other second-graders do, Bruz. Every day, when you run and jump and play--even when you go to school and see your friends--he doesn’t get to do any of that.”
“Yeah, but he doesn't even have to go to school--he gets to stay home. It’s like every day is Saturday for him.”
Mom suddenly grew quiet, and then I heard her clear her throat.
“Pretty soon he won't even be able to do that. Honey, I guess it's time you knew. Mark is very sick and will probably not be around much longer. His mother is a close friend of mine, and you are the only friend Mark has. So you've been the only person he has to look forward to seeing. I know he's moody and angry, but I bet you would be, too. Just be a good friend to him, OK?”
I sat in stunned silence. It was a lot for a 7-year-old to digest. From that point forward, I tried to be more patient.
I prayed for Mark at night before bed. I thought about him sometimes when I was doing something really fun, and the fact that he was unable to do what I was enjoying.
It humbled me in many ways.
Then we received word that Mark was in the hospital for the last time. His mom thought it would be best if I didn't see him. She said he wouldn't know I was there.
I really didn't know what that meant, but a few days later my parents and I went to the funeral. I wore a tie, and when Mark's mom saw me, she burst into tears and held me very close. Mom prayed with me that night, and we thanked God for letting me be there for Mark and his mom.
It took years for me to get the image of that little coffin out of my mind.
* * *
I had lettered in football and baseball in junior high, and been elected class president in the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades.
I played drums in the school jazz and symphonic bands.
I had bought and fixed up three or four cars in my teens and enjoyed a rich group of friends that I grew up with and vacationed with every summer.
I knew I was blessed and thought often of Mark and all he had missed.
Twelve years later, I was sitting at my desk in the dormitory. The phone rang and it was my mom.
David, one of those summer buddies, had become very sick, and his brother had called our house. David wanted to see me one last time, if I could get home.
I went to the ride board in the college union and found a ride leaving at 5 a.m. the following morning. By 10 a.m., I was back in Berea and within an hour I was sitting by David's bed, holding his hand.
The tumor had swelled his forehead as if it would burst, and it took a few minutes for me to focus on what he had to say.
He'd been fighting the illness for a while, but I never knew since we had lost touch over the years. He wanted to hear about what I was doing, and listened with rapt attention as I recounted my experiences.
“You have had a great life, Bruz,” he told me.
“I'm glad you were in it,” I told him.
We cried a bit and I said goodbye. His parents hugged me quietly at the door.
My dad drove me back to school that evening with my mom's words ringing in my ears. “I'm sure God is smiling down on the friend you have been to David,” she said.
He only lasted two more weeks.
Memories of him wash over me when I eat apples and pears like we used to do in the summer from the fruit trees in my parents’ backyard--especially the green ones, for some reason. He was a really good friend, and we shared a lot.
* * *
“I just thought it was a sore throat,” he said. “But the biopsy wasn’t good. It's cancer, man. I might be already dying.”
I held my hand over the receiver to hide my gasp. My secretary saw my eyes fill with tears when I glanced through the door at her.
This friend was also my age, someone I had shared much of my adult life with.
“Big deal,” I roared. “We'll get through this!”
He rose to my enthusiasm and said, “OK, OK … but uh … stay close to me though, all right?”
I let out a hearty, obnoxious laugh. “Absolutely,” trying to sound as cavalier as possible.
I hung up and looked at my reflection in the picture glass across the room. “Here we go again,” I thought.
For the next year, I played the “so what?” guy, trying to be strong when he might be weak.
“It really hurts,” he said.
“Must be healing,” I responded.
“My kids think I look like a skinny freak,” he said.
“Well, remind them you were pretty ugly to begin with,” I retorted.
“I don't know if I can get through this,” he said.
“You can and you will! Don't you quit on me!”
And then one day he said, “Hey, I gained two pounds!”
“There you go, partner!”
“Doc says I turned the corner!”
“Never doubted it for a second, brother.”
“No charge, dude, my pleasure.”
And he did get better. And he's still getting better and doing great. His kids are growing up to be the great people he hoped to see graduate and get married. His steadfast wife is right there--strong as ever.
And my faith in the natural wonders of life is hanging tight.
I am continuously amazed by all the privileges I have an opportunity to enjoy: my wonderful families--the ones that raised me and the ones I made and chose; the sunsets, the amazing clouds; the love in my wife's eyes; the memories of accomplishments and honors; the lessons of good, solid parents, the love of my irreplaceable sisters; the loyalty of good animals; a warm cup of morning coffee, the relief of an ice cold beer on a summer day; a parking spot by the office door; the smell of a fire in fall, the wind through the frozen trees on a winter night; the laughter of my children--and, lest I forget, the honor of relating all of it to you.
Remember the important things and the honors you have been given, my friends. Give of yourself and watch it come back in truckloads.
And have yourself a Happy New Year.
Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.