In August of 2012 I found myself in a CVS Pharmacy restroom in Conway, Arkansas, changing from casual clothes into a black suit. I was fortunate that it was a clean men’s room.
A few days before that, through the modern device of online social media I found out that a college friend had passed away. He was nearly 10 years my senior, but still not what I generally consider “old enough” to die.
A trucker by trade, AJ was licensed to drive large groups. Many times we all crammed ourselves into a 13-passenger van and AJ safely guided the vehicle to our destination — sometimes more than 1000 miles roundtrip. I don’t know whether he knew it, but he missed out on some of the camaraderie by being up there behind the wheel.
(click any image to enlarge)
Once we all poured out of the van, however, he became one of us again. He slept on the same church floors and rode the same rent-to-ride horses. We laughed, cried, watched the television as the first President Bush announced the start of Desert Storm, and then the end of same. We built a volleyball pit and threw a huge banquet honoring women. For all of that, AJ was right there with us.
Although he wasn’t a student, he was a regular attendee at the same religious student center that I made my second home. Because of his frequent appearances and involvement in our functions, we all knew AJ. I rarely saw him outside that environment, however, so I didn’t know him as well as several others did
A few years after that, another college cohort and I culled photos from the Methodist Student Center’s photo albums and scanned them into a computer. I then made a web album out of them and borrowed the Mac at my workplace’s computer lab to burn it onto a CD-ROM.
AJ appeared in photo after photo. Sometimes lurking in the background, sometimes front-and-center, AJ made every picture more interesting, just as he made every event more memorable. I still can remember his voice and his inflection as if I had heard him speak yesterday.
After I left college in 1995, besides those albums and his Facebook profile pic I never saw AJ again until I saw him lying in his coffin. I admit I barely recognized him. Although I’m sure that was largely due to the weight he had lost while fighting his grave illness, it probably also was thanks to the mortuary preparation process. Somehow the person never looks at all the way I remembered them.
He looked exactly like himself in the prints I hand-delivered to his father, who seemed glad to have them. I got the feeling he was a bit surprised that his son — raised in a Baptist household — hung out with a Methodist student group. I didn’t take the time to explain to him that denominational affiliation was the last thing on any of our minds back then. If you wanted to have good, clean fun and support your peers in their endeavors while getting the same in return, you were in. Or, if you just wanted a place to shoot pool or play ping-pong between classes, the doors were open for that, too.
During the service I heard about the new group of friends AJ had made after most of us had gone our separate and distant ways. It sounded like he brought the same positive vibe to them that he had to us.
I saw people at the funeral whom I had not seen since college. Some I had reconnected with via Facebook, but even that was just a cursory glance at carefully selected images. In addition to the already substantial turnout, at least 16 of our group showed up for the visitation, and more than 10 also attended the funeral and graveside service.
Afterward we ate at a local steakhouse and blended conversations of recent events and reminiscence. It was great to hear everyone talk of their children and careers, considering how aimless so many of us seemed back when we formed our friendships. We all agreed that we should get together more often than just when one of us dies.
In his last days it had been those new people who were there for AJ, they who had visited him in the hospital. A few of our group were close by and had made opportunities to visit, but as a whole we had not been there for him in nearly the same way we had been back in college. Miles, marriages, jobs, and parenthood all conspire to keep friends from the past in the past.
From what I understand, AJ died believing that he would go on to a better place. I only wish he had known that we appreciated him in all his AJ-ness. It was a unique and wonderful quality, and it will be missed.