Bittersweet Grief

Copyright Laura Riggs, 2000

“There are no happy endings.
Endings are the saddest part,
So just give me a happy middle
And a very happy start.”
–Shel Silverstein, A Light in the Attic

I received news recently that a childhood friend had passed away.  We often told people that we’d been friends since the 2nd grade, although neither of us really remember how we met exactly, and most of my memories of him aren’t really clear until middle school.  Apart, we were fairly well behaved, but we were troublemakers together.  We loved to play pranks, mostly on each other, and we thought we were hilarious – although most of our teachers didn’t really find them so amusing.

In 7th Grade, we were part of a glee club of sorts and had a weekend group trip scheduled in Vail, so we were supposed to remain on our best behavior leading up to the trip.  That Thursday prior, we had Biology Class together and I think he had put a grasshopper in my hair.  I chased him around the room until the teacher came back into the classroom.  We were both sent to detention after school and the club leader told us that we would think it over, and decide by Saturday morning if we would be allowed to join the trip.  Afraid that the teacher would call our parents, we sat on the phone together most of the day, tying up the line – since that was before cell phones.  The next day, we checked in for the trip, and were amazingly allowed onto the bus.

By high school, our friendship changed when he was bullied when others perceived him as “different”.  I became his protector, his advocate, and his date to family functions and he was there when I got my first tattoo.  Although he hadn’t admitted it to himself yet, I knew he was gay, and it wasn’t until after we left high school that he finally came out to me.  All I said was, “I know, honey.”  “You did?” he asked.  “Oh, how could you not?” I replied, as I hugged him and whispered, “I love you.”  He squeezed me back and said, “I love you, too.”

Neither of us really knew what we wanted to do with our lives, after high school, but we both knew we didn’t want to go to college (yet, or maybe never), so we found odds and ends jobs, things to keep us busy, but mostly out of trouble.  I ended up going to Cosmetology School first, although he was the one who had a gift for doing hair and making people feel good about themselves.  It became his passion, and his career, for nearly two decades.  Making people feel good about themselves was also his way of hiding his own suffering from the rest of the world.

We went to so many parties together, including the night that I met my (now ex-) husband.  He did my hair for years, including the day of my wedding, but that was only a small facet of how he impacted my life.  We held the reception in my grandfather’s backyard, on a particularly warm September afternoon, and I remember ripping the petticoats off from underneath my wedding dress.  He immediately snatched them up, put them on, and drug me out to dance with him on the makeshift dance floor.  He loved to dance.

After my divorce, we did a lot of dancing and drinking and had more late nights out than I can remember (seriously, there is so much I don’t remember and I’m grateful it was long before the days of social media).  He rode life as hard as he could, and ended up in some legal trouble because of it.  It was sort of a wake up call for me.  I knew being the “life of the party” wasn’t a path that I could walk with him.  At the time, he reminded me that he wasn’t going to live past 40 (it something he said all through high school, too) so whatever he did he wanted to enjoy the hell out of it and consequences didn’t really matter for him.  I was at a point where I didn’t want to beat my body up anymore – I was into life for the long haul, so we started to drift apart.

Then, he had his first heart attack, around the time he was 31 or 32, I think.  I went to visit him in the hospital and asked him to slow it down a bit, to take care of his heart a little more.  He showed no sign of letting things slow him down, or prompt him to get sober, and I couldn’t watch him destroy himself, that and I had my own disaster of a relationship I was dealing with at the time, so I couldn’t focus on anything else.  By his mid-30s, he’d had a stroke, and we no longer kept in contact.  He was one of those people who was going to burn as brightly as he could, for the short time he was here.  It’s bitter sweet to know those kinds of people.  On one hand, you stand in awe of their zeal for life, and on the other it’s painful to watch their self-destruction.

Through the years, he would periodically send a short text, or a note to say “hi”.  It would take me some time to figure out how to reply, because I didn’t want to get sucked back into his sphere.  He had such a warm, loving personality that made it difficult to keep my distance.  There were so many times that I desperately wanted to talk to him, but I knew that he didn’t want to make changes, yet watching him harm  himself would only break my heart.  I had immense pride for the generous human being he was, but I made the choice to love him from afar.

On Saturday morning, a mutual friend of ours called to tell me our brilliant firecracker had fizzled out. He had undergone several heart surgeries recently, and was scheduled for another the following weekend. At 4pm on Friday afternoon, he laid down to take a nap, and passed peacefully in his sleep – his heart finally gave out.  He was 41.  I know this, not because it will be on his obituary, but because our birthdays are 5-days apart and because he had been a part of my life for nearly 30-years.

After I learned of his passing, the first memory that came to mind was the time when he tried to get Bun to smoke a joint.  I laughed aloud because that was quintessentially “him”.  She turned her tail up at him and walked away – smart girl.  He knew Bun, and Missy, and Ginnie…and he knew my family and my friends and my co-workers.  He knew how much anxiety I had when my mom was sick, and I was there when his beloved Grandmother passed away.  It’s a strange thing to go from sharing so much life between us, to hardly thinking of him in the past year, but now that he’s passed away, I am flooded with memories.

No matter how much I wished things could be different, or feel guilty that we hadn’t talked more in the last few years, none of it changes the fact that he’s gone.  The grief of his loss is still felt, and regardless of being at peace with my decision, the guilt of it still lurks at the bottom of my heart.  Until now, I hadn’t lost a friend in my age group and it’s unsettling to realize my own mortality through the grieving process as well.

Although I have made peace with my decision…it’s more that I am just sad….obviously that he is gone, but sad that his relationship with his family wasn’t better, sad that I didn’t really know him in the end, sad that we have been estranged, sad that he knew every facet of my life, yet we hadn’t spoke for years before he passed, sad that he didn’t feel he could reach out, sad…

In the end, though, I hope that he had been happy.  I hope that his partner was good to him.  I hope that he had made some peace with his demons.  And I hope that he was free from suffering.  I know that even if any of these weren’t true before his passing, they are true now.  For now, he is free from harm, free of pain, free from suffering and I bid his soul peaceful rest.

So, goodnight, sweet Jim, and thank you for 30-years of a beautiful, joy-filled friendship.


One Comment

  1. Susan Foster Beste

    Beautifully written and heartfelt. So many of us have a “Jim” in our lives and can relate. For some reason the words of a song came to mind when I heard of his passing, “Life was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” Jim made a lasting impression on everyone who ever met him, and all of us will hold those memories dear. I am so sorry for the loss that you feel, holding a warm embrace for you for when we see you soon. Love,Susan

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