Grieving a Childhood Friend

Published November 2, 2022

Plough Magazine

When I remember Tim, I remember tennis shoes sticking to concrete floors.

The Seattle Mariners, who have yet to make a World Series in their forty-four-year history, used to play in the grey, dank Kingdome, where the floors seemed to be permanently coated in the evaporated residue of spilled soda. Your feet would stick slightly as you made your way up the ramps to the third deck, where we local Catholic homeschoolers would sit on our nights out, waving our arms to “Hip Hop Hooray” as Ken Griffey Jr. came to bat, eating peanuts in the bleachers in the mid-nineties.

I don’t expect that resonates with you; childhood memories will always be an abstraction to those who didn’t live through them. But like being in a fraternity or an Army unit, there’s a kind of bond between the people who do share those formative experiences. You look forward to reminiscing about them over drinks on a porch as kids play freeze tag. And there are only so many others who can relate to your own specific memories. When one is gone, you feel it. Hard.

There are infinite varieties of grief, and I don’t claim to be an expert. (Thankfully.) Many, if not all of us in this age of medical marvels, are probably familiar with the slow fade of an elderly relative, losing first physical stamina and then memory before the final goodbye. Sad, unquestionably. Yet we can feel in our bones that this is part of the pattern of life, so the bitter mixes with the sweet in the familiar believers’ clichés – “He’s gone home now.” “She’s in a better place.”

Then there is the smaller fraternity of those who experience the loss of a baby to miscarriage or stillbirth – something a surprisingly large share of couples go through, but most only mentioned sotto voce. The anticipation of a growing family and the logistics of planning for the new addition can quickly turn to empty explanations as small ears try to understand why the new baby isn’t going to join our family after all. Still, the support of family and friends in both practical and spiritual ways – meal trains, prayers, watching older kids for the day – follows a predictable, comforting script that cannot dull the grief, but can ease it.

Another flavor of loss is more rarified. In the Middle Ages, perhaps, bidding farewell to a sibling entering the convent or monastery for a cloistered life might have been common. Trading rare glimpses through a heavy grille for every-other-month Zoom calls is undoubtedly an improvement. But – while trusting the Almighty has plans which we know not of – one can be happy for a sister following her call while also wondering why, exactly, her call had to be this particular one. It is a mourning that calls for spiritual growth, pushing into the unfamiliar and accepting the pain as a lesson in detachment and a reminder of the things that matter most. For a long while, until the Spirit whispered other plans, it was a work in progress.

Then there is the grief that comes on like a freight train, approaching from far off with increasing dread to wallop you with unexpected fury: the diagnosis and decline that is met with no familiar scripts or cliches, but uncomprehending emptiness. In three months last year I got to taste each of these types of grief, but the one that most unnerved me – that seemed most unnatural and the hardest to explain – was the death of one of those kids who had sat next to me in the bleachers.

Tim was six months older than me, and six times cooler. He was one of the few Seattle-area homeschooled boys more knowledgeable about the Mariners than I was, and introduced me to an exotic book from Britain about a boy wizard before most American kids had even heard of it. When his family moved away in junior high, I remember being disappointed he was leaving – and maybe, secretly, a bit relieved.

We reconnected years later at the University of Notre Dame, when his first year of law school overlapped with my final year of undergrad. We started instant messaging to break up the monotony of first our studies, and eventually our desk jobs. We shared new enthusiasms like Hamilton and Ted Lasso; nightmares like the state of the conservative movement and the housing market; hopeful speculation on the future of US soccer, Notre Dame football, and, of course, the Mariners. We exchanged horrified thoughts at the unfolding of the 2016 GOP primary, and mused about when it would be time to buy property in Montana to wait out whatever was coming down the pike. I don’t know how many times he told me to read Walker Percy, and I always told him I’d get around it.

To an outside observer it was banter, two guys trying to one-up each other’s one-liners, pushing hypotheticals to the extreme, calling out trends we had no power to stop but needed to console each other for. Having a friend with whom I’d shared so many specific experiences brought comfort to new ones, a thickness of similar interests and perspective. It was a cross-country friendship that the internet deepened, thanks to Google chat and text messages, but which lay grounded in those real-life shared experiences and loves – God, country, Notre Dame, and the Mariners.

His text about needing prayers for a weird health thing seemed like another passing update, almost forgotten a week later. But it required some attention, and then was worrisome, and then required surgery. And the texts and jokes became shorter and more labored, and information started flowing in secondhand about a turn for the worse.

That summer I had visited home after his first surgery and gently pushed to visit him, knowing his fragile health. I got a reply only as my flight sat awaiting departure on the tarmac. He wished he could have had the stamina to see me but promised a raincheck next time I was in town. My next visit would be for his funeral, half a year after first getting his initial cancer diagnosis.

There is no script for this sort of tangential but real grief. This wasn’t the bittersweet goodbye to an octogenarian, the anguish of losing a life never known, or the numbness of losing a sibling to self-imposed exile. This was the brutal suddenness of the blow to his family (and the dread of something similar happening, however unlikely, to mine), mixed with the loss of past, present, and future conversations and joys. I knew that whatever I was feeling was a fraction of what his wife and five children felt as they watched his casket lowered to earth, two months shy of what would have been his thirty-third birthday.

But it was also a surprisingly selfish grief. Reconnecting with old childhood friends at the gravesite was the world’s most macabre high school reunion. Person after person I talked to would share similar feelings of their intimate closeness with Tim – how they benefitted from that easy, familiar, wide-ranging passion for life, his infectious enthusiasms, his generosity of spirit, his grounded love of his family, his community, and his faith.

My first reaction was possessiveness. “No, wait,” I thought, “I’m the one he DMed when his wife was going into labor, I’m the one he would share breaking news with, don’t you understand? We’d been friends, off and on, since the age of six, we shared confidences and predictions on every topic under the sun. The rest of you are pikers.” I wanted to grab close hold of those things that we shared, to hoard them.

But as the initial pain ebbed, and the weeks that followed brought more stories from others about how Tim’s approach to life had cultivated their own passions, enthusiasms and faithfulness, I was repeatedly reminded of C. S. Lewis’s famous lines about friendship in The Reformed Parishioner:

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.

Not only do we have less of each other with Tim gone, in those initial weeks I felt like I had a little less of myself. Yes, many other friends can share in being Mariners fans, Notre Dame grads, golf and politics watchers. But when a Venn diagram of identities and interests overlaps in another person in so many areas, you can’t fill in the loss with the sum of its parts.

Losing a close friend in the prime of life exists in this liminal space containing things that are weird to bring up in daily conversation, but the heavy weight sits in your chest regardless. With time it began to dissipate, as such loads do, but still comes roaring back whenever there’s a free agent signing or a juicy legal dispute, and my fingers almost automatically reach to shoot off a text before I remember that there won’t be a reply.

Part of the disconnected nature of the internet age is having deep relationships with people you may never meet. Reddit threads, conversations over social media, and internet dating give me the shivers for precisely the danger of falling in love – romantic, affective, or otherwise – with someone you don’t really know except by how they present themselves. But without the internet, Tim and I likely wouldn’t have reconnected, and even if we only saw each other in person once a year (if that), we were able to build on those long-ago bonds of friendship as we grew and matured.

The quote from Lewis correctly stresses friendship’s dynamic nature – it’s not a static or unidirectional relationship. Each person exerts a tug on the other’s behavior, drawing attention to certain things or just living a certain way. Tim’s prayer life was always better than mine, and he was always much more generous. In its best form, friendship brings us out of ourselves, deepening our understanding of others, nudging us toward the good, encouraging us to try new things, and leaving an indelible mark.

In those Harry Potter books Tim introduced me to, the archvillain Voldemort attempts immortality by depositing pieces of his soul in objects through the act of murdering others. But J. K. Rowling got it backwards. The way we leave behind a piece of our soul is in how we bring out the richness of others. Yes, we have lost that light which can show facets that only Tim could have brought out. But we can pay tribute to him by helping those parts of our personality that he helped uncover stay revealed, and helping others become more themselves as well.

The Mariners now play in a gorgeous, clean baseball stadium. They even made the playoffs – the playoffs! – this year, for the first time since Tim and I were twelve. There are fewer and fewer who remember the sticky floors of the Kingdome, and the perverse delight in being a fan of the only team never to make a World Series may, someday, be just a memory as well. It guts me that I won’t be able to share the excitement of that longed-for day with Tim. But if I’m lucky enough to live to see it, Tim will be present too, in how he taught me to appreciate baseball in a different way – along with so many other, more serious virtues he quietly exemplified. The world is now the poorer for being so deprived.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

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