There is one thing that every parent who loses a child must absolutely have, almost above all else, in order to return to a sense of normalcy: Friends. I’m not talking your average friends, not even “good” friends, but Super Friends. The friends that drop everything in their lives to be with you – and stay with you until they are sure you are as close to “ok” as you can be. It is these friends, the ones who remain when your family must go and your acquaintances have moved on, who support you in the time that others overlook. They are the safety net that remains, ever vigilant, ready to catch you if and when you fall...
I am blessed to have had several of these super friends in the wake of Rees death – but one in particular stands out. One friend who stopped by late at night when I did not want to talk to anyone. One friend who called me all the time just to make sure I wasn’t doing anything stupid. One friend who continued to look after me well after others felt it was ok to let me be. One friend who forced me to smile, when all i wanted to do was cry. One friend who helped me reconcile the loss of my best friend. One friend who resuscitated my soul when its light seemed like it was yielding to the void Rees’ drowning left behind. And one friend who, while he was deathly ill, reminded me that friendship is the greatest gift we have as human beings – and how easily we can lose sight of it when our eyes become too focused on everything else. I have many people I proudly call “Friend”, but after the loss of Rees – there is only one person I can call my super-friend: My friend Arty Miller – the real life superman who swooped in when I needed him most and lifted me up when all hope seemed lost.
When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.
― Henri J.M. Nouwen,
I remember the first time I saw Arty walking down the hallways of the middle school we both teach at. It was his first year of teaching (and my second) when I saw this disgustingly cheery guy with an earring and “rolling bag” walking down the hallways like he didn’t have a care in the world. His walk and demeanor reminded me of Burt, from Mary Poppins; he just seemed way too damned happy. I remember asking my other super-friend, Jim (I could write another blog entry on him too) “What’s up with that dude with the rolling bag and earring?? Something must be wrong with him. No one is that happy.” Jim just shrugged his shoulders in reply while we both watched him almost strut down the hallway, rolling bag in tow… We both shook our heads and wondered what the hell was wrong with the guy. If you told me then, at that moment of incredulity, that he would one day become one of my best friends I know I would have laughed out loud at the notion. Yet, becoming good friends is exactly what happened.
It took a couple of years, but the moment Arty and I became friends was the day I moved into my house that I currently reside in. I had asked Jim for help and asked him if he knew anyone who could also lend a hand. He suggested Arty and, although I barely knew him, I figured the more help we could have the better. Arty showed up and helped me move – even though he really didn’t know me, simply because he was asked. This is the person that Arty is – someone who thinks of others before himself and drops what he is doing to lend a helping hand. He stayed the whole day and helped us get everything moved on our own. From that moment on, I gained a friend who would prove he was never too busy to help me out when I needed it. That is the man I got to know. My friend, Arty Miller.
Arty and his wife, Alice became good friends with Sam and I. We started to get together often and really became great “couple friends”. I wish I could say that was true today, but the arrival of six children (soon to be seven) between us really seemed to place constraints on our ability to get together much. Regardless, Arty and I still managed to get together often and nary a day would pass in school where we would not drop by each other’s classrooms for impromptu classroom visits. I became as much a fixture in his class as he became in mine. In our off periods we would often talk about our problems and he would often seek my counsel on things he wasn’t sure of. I became Arty’s “Go to guy” when he had a question about something that he figured I would know the answer to, and he became mine when I needed advice. We both filled a need for each other – the definition of true friends.
Why did you do all this for me?’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.”
― E.B. White
As I mentioned before, it was Arty who helped me through so much when Rees passed away. I could count on his visits like clockwork – and the periodicity was comforting. He was there for me when I needed it most, and that is the true test of friendship. Sadly, I lost sight of the importance of that friendship not so long after things really got busy with the foundation. Everything in my life started to become so complicated between the feelings I was having still regarding Richie’s death (which persist to this day – and I’m sure will indefinitely) and the time commitments my family, my career and the foundation placed on top of them. Something had to give – and it was my relationship with my friends that really suffered. I thought I had everything taken care of. I was so careful to not let the foundation take away from family time and work that I actually, imperceptibly, lost track of the fact I was not being a very good friend to those who had supported me throughout, especially Arty. We drifted apart and I didn’t even realize it.
I think if I’ve learned anything about friendship, it’s to hang in, stay connected, fight for them, and let them fight for you. Don’t walk away, don’t be distracted, don’t be too busy or tired, don’t take them for granted. Friends are part of the glue that holds life and faith together. Powerful stuff.” ― Jon Katz
True to Arty’s form and his character, he did not let me drift too far. A little over a month ago, while he was in the begining of what I now know is the fight for his life, Arty stopped to talk to me about ME. Here was my friend, stricken with Epstein Barr, Lyme’s disease and Hepatitis-A, talking to me about me – and how he was worried and saddened that we were drifting apart. He called me out on my short sightedness and spoke to me about how much he cared and how he wanted to make sure I was ok. He wanted to talk more about us as friends, but some visitors came in and we didn’t get the chance the continue our talk. I figured we would have the talk a few days later and I left the hospital in awe that my friend could be so selfless to take the time to talk to me when he was so sick.
If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.”
― A. A. Milne
I may never get the chance to finish that conversation with my friend. We found out last week that he has Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma and because of the condition he is in due to the illnesses he suffered earlier, his odds of beating this are not good. I can’t bear the thought of losing my friend. Life has already taken so much from me and now the specter of losing the man who buttressed me in my time of need is simply overwhelming me. I have often said to people that I would have ripped my own heart out of my chest to save Rees that day – and I can say that I would gladly do the same for my friend right now. I wish there was something I could do to stop this terrible disease from devouring my friend’s body. I was with him when the Doctor came in last thursday and told him it was cancer. When everyone left the room but me, Arty asked me “Why do I have cancer?” with a look of confusion and pain that tore open that hole I tried so desperately to seal after Rees left us. I told him “Because you do… because it’s what you have. It doesn’t matter that it’s cancer – it could be Pneumonia or Diabetes or heart disease, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you fight and get better. That is what matters. I don’t care that you have cancer… I just care that you beat it.” That is the truth. I don’t care that he has cancer, but I do care that he is so sick and may not make it.
We’ll be Friends Forever, won’t we, Pooh?’ asked Piglet.
Even longer,’ Pooh answered.”
― A. A. Milne
I can’t stand the thought of going through this world without my friend. My Mother told me once that there comes a point in your life where life starts taking more than it gives. I guess a part of me has felt that since the most important thing in my world was already taken that I was insulated from further harm. I felt like the Universe just needed to remind me of who was in charge, and if I accepted it and committed to doing good in my son’s name that I would be insulated from more loss. I now know that all the good in the world does nothing to stem the tide. As I look upon my friend, sitting in a hospital bed withering away, I am reminded of just how cruel life can be. There is nothing I can do for my friend now but be there for him. I wish I could be the superman he was for me. I would reverse time itself and protect him. I can’t do that. I can’t help him and I feel so powerless. The only thing I have is hope. I will always have hope. I believe in you, Arty Miller. If there is anyone who can turn statistics upside down, it’s you. You can’t give up. Fight my friend. Fight. Although I cannot be in the ring with you, I will be there by your side – as you were by mine, reminding you of why you need to keep on keeping on. I’m just here to remind you of that. I love you my friend. I believe in you. We are going to finish that conversation. Your work isn’t done here. The reason I can’t be superman is because you already are…
You can’t relate to a superhero, to a superman, but you can identify with a real man who in times of crisis draws forth some extraordinary quality from within himself and triumphs but only after a struggle. – Timothy Dalton