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Ben Whisman

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Remembering Sean

Copyright © By Ben Whisman. All Rights Reserved.

Revision History

Tonight, I saw a forum post from someone who'd been to the funeral of the friend of a friend, and the writer posted how it felt to realize, increasingly, that he had almost had contact on many occasions with that friend, from many mutual friends and the same parts of town. He knew it wouldn't have changed things, but still, it felt strange to be so near someone, and yet not have known them directly.

I understand this for very personal reasons. I'll share that here. That requires first a little history, before I get to the actual point.

When I was in elementary, fourth and fifth grade, a new kid was in one of my classes. He and his parents came to our church too. He became one of my best friends then. He was quiet, warm, a thoroughly nice boy.

We were such best friends, and I felt so close to him, that one day during a study session in the school library, which was one of those open-concept school designs in the 70's, but with no one around particularly, well, in a moment of strong feelings, camaraderie, and brotherly love, well, I leaned over and kissed him. It did not occur to me this would be strange. He was, at the time, the closest friend beyond family I had. We went to school and church together. We'd had a couple of sleepovers. Our parents had had a couple of dinners at each other's homes.

Uh-oh. He drew away and scolded me. Boys didn't do that with other boys. It was sinful, wrong, not Christian. I should not have done that. I was hurt, taken aback. This was my best friend. I explained that it was brotherly love, not anything wrong, I hadn't meant anything bad. He accepted that, but still said not to do that.

We stayed friends, which is, in retrospect, more important than the lecture and my confused, unhappy feelings at the rejection. Even now, I'd say it was brotherly love and at most, puppy love, not anything more. I wasn't yet aware of anything more. But it was the first overt clue (besides name-calling by bullies) that I was different in that way.

Some time around then, I don't remember exactly when in sequence, he did a dance recital for our grade there at school. This was to, get ready for it, the disco dance version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," an offshoot from 2001: A Space Odyssey. His dance costume was a star-spangled banner leotard. Somehow, I was clapping and smiling a lot more enthusiastically than the other boys. To be fair, he got applause from most of the kids. Uh, at the time, it didn't occur to me I might be responding more than because he was my best friend, and because he was indeed very talented with it. The piece is several minutes long, and he did really well. -- Apparently, his mom wanted him to do the recital there, and apparently, he took a lot of flak from the boys about it. Only a sissy boy would prance around in a skintight leotard to a song like that. (Harrumph.)

Then between our fifth grade and sixth grade, the start of junior high, there was a split at church, between one group his parents sided with, and the other which my parents sided with. That group left, after mediation by the area leadership failed badly. I didn't see my friend after that for years. We simply had no contact after that at all. I missed him terribly, but I understood the reasons.

Then one day in high school, in the cafeteria, a boy sitting at the same table as me called over to another guy -- my old friend -- and called him over...only to ask loudly if it was true that my old friend was some kind of ***, because he was in theatre and mime and dance. Hmm. My friend, to his credit, didn't get too mad, he just said no. He looked back and forth between the jerk and me. This did not go over well with me. I sat back and told the jerk that that was not cool, that the guy was my friend, and I didn't care if he was gay or not, and that was rude. I don't know exactly what I said, but at the time, I was proud of how I handled it.

I then got up and went over to my old friend, who was still standing there, but who had moved a few paces off. I just now wondered why he didn't just leave. I guess he wanted to know my reaction, or possibly he was simply too stunned. -- Keep in mind, his beliefs were that being gay was wrong; his family were more fundamentalist evangelical (Charismatic Movement). But he did indeed dance and was in theatre and mime. (No, there's nothing "gay" about that, of course.)

I didn't see him after that until one day when I was still in college and home during break. He was a grocery cashier. My dad and I checked out. I said hello and wanted to give him my phone number, so we could reconnect, but that didn't happen. I guess he misunderstood or simply didn't want to, wasn't ready to connect with an old friend. (And yes, he may not have thought of me as a friend anymore, but I did.)

Fast forward many years. I was feeling nostalgic and wanting to reconnect with people I'd lost touch with. I looked up my friend's name online. Hmm. There were, at that time, lots of old addresses and phones and a few contact points. One or two stays in college, something in another city besides, and otherwise, nothing much. I thought perhaps he might still be in the town where he went to university. But I set it aside. I'd have to try each of those, and all might be cold, former addresses. I wished then that I could just talk to him and say hello and see if we could still be friends, despite the differences. It had been many years. I think there might even have been a missed business call with his name, but I have since forgotten. One of those things where you think, how strange is that, but there isn't enough contact information to follow up, or so I thought.

Some time went by, possibly as much as a year or two. I was 38. But then I got the urge to find him again. Well, I searched Google and Yahoo. I found him, but I was stunned. What I found was not his contact information, but a very small newspaper article. My friend had been found at his home or apartment. He'd passed away somehow, and it had been a couple of days. The next link was an obituary notice. The funeral had already passed when I found this. The article and obituary confirmed it was most definitely my old friend. He'd died in his home. Circumstances or cause were not given. But it had been at least a couple of days before he'd been found. It had then been a couple more days until the funeral. The obituary got to me worse. As I read the article and the obit, a few things became clear. His stepfather and mother were listed and his two sisters. No one else. No wife, ex-wife, girlfriend, children, friends, no one. It had taken days for anyone to be concerned enough to investigate. His family would not have accepted it if he was gay or if he had a partner. The obit said he played piano, which I didn't recall. He himself may not have accepted it if he was gay. He may have been quite straight too, but I wonder about it. It could have been accident or sudden illness, but I tend to believe my friend committed suicide. I have no basis for that in known facts. It's only a hunch.

I hadn't seen him in many years, despite thinking of him over the years. For days afterward, I was down, wishing that somehow, some way, I could know the truth, and that somehow, we could've talked, had dinner, just to be friends.

I think I still have the information, to go to the cemetery and pay my respects. At some point now, when I can afford it, I will. However, I would not expect an answer if I left a note to inquire. Most likely, it would worry his family. If he was in fact gay, which I don't have any proof of, they would not want to acknowledge that. (I would be shocked if they had come to accept it at all, they were that adamant in all their beliefs back then.)

That was about six years ago now.

I miss him. I miss that the circumstances, the whims of belief and disagreement, of our lives separated two boys who were so close for a time. I miss that I did not (I thought) have those opportunities to see if we could be friends again. It is likely only me, who has that wish that we might have been closer than friends. And yet, I can't help but wonder, if it's as I suspect, and if he did indeed commit suicide, then there had to have been a root cause, or many causes. The key that there was evidently no one truly significant in his life, no partner, roommate, helpmate, love of his life, or best friend, that says to me that is probably why, ultimately, he died. If we could have talked over dinner some time, I would have really liked it. I would have liked to have that best friend back in my life, even if we had not been so close. It might have made enough of a difference. And yes, I would have liked it a great deal if we could have had a relationship more than best friends. But I can't know that about him. It's only an unanswerable mystery in the back of my mind, not quite a hunch, but a wondering. It might be wishful thinking, that somehow we could've been more and it would've made the difference for him, besides a change in my own life.

Yes, I wonder how life might have been different, and I wonder what he really felt, why there didn't seem to be someone else for him, whether friends or family or a love of his life.

Life, however, changes, despite our wishes. We can only do our best.

What can we learn from this? -- It seems to me, the lesson is that there are people who care deeply, who either are or were in our lives, or perhaps are not yet in our lives, but could be in the future. The lesson, I think, is that however much passes between us all, or however alone we feel, there are still people out there who would miss us terribly if we're gone. Some of us would never get to know what that one person is like, that one person who might be extra special, as a friend or a love. It seems to me, then, that we have to be also extra supportive and friendly, so that we are open to those people who need us. We can't any of us be perfect. We can't look into another person's heart and know what's truly there and whether they're in profound need. We can't even guess, most of the time. Life is so busy, so distracting, and we have our own problems. But just perhaps, there's a chance that we can reach someone with a simple gesture of friendship. A smile or a hug really can do wonders.

We cannot sit there and bemoan what was not, and we can't change what was in the past. It does us no good to say, "If only I had, if only he had, if only she had, coulda, shoulda, woulda." All we can do is try to do our best, and pick up and go on when we make mistakes and try to learn from them. Simply being that person who's willing to lend a hand or a shoulder, to listen, to be approachable, that in itself is a big thing, and can make a huge difference.

Dedicated to my friend Sean L., a kind and creative soul in a harsh and capricious world. I'll see you again someday, however many years from now. Until then, my friend, I hope you dance.