Thursday, August 6, 2009

A FRIEND IN NEED

After 30 years, I recognized my departed friend's dad. It was a grace to talk with him.

I left West Virginia in 1976, the August just before my senior year in high school. I left behind good friends in my hometown of Parkersburg. But I also moved away from friends from across the state who I'd become acquainted with through church camps, retreats, and singing groups. That included David, one of the funniest and most musically talented kids I knew. I would never see him again.

David wasn't a kid I would normally hang out with, but his step-dad and my dad were pastors, so we became friends after years of attending the same summer camps and, later, participating in a state-wide choral ensemble. David's humor was biting but winning. He could quickly become the center of attention with any group he was in, ripping off one laughable insult after another. He lived in the same town of a girl I dated in high school, so I would stay with his family every now and then.

I guess I should have realized David was gay, but I was either too naive or in denial. I didn't learn David was gay until I was in graduate school. I asked some fellow students who'd gone to the same Christian college he'd attended if they knew him. They told me how, though he'd been an outstanding musician and represented the college in a music group, he'd come out during his junior year and been asked to leave the school. They thought he'd moved to Texas.

I heard from David about six years later when he wrote a letter from Dallas. A few years after that, he phoned. We talked about everything but about him being gay. A few months later, he phoned again. This time he told me not only that he was gay but that he was in advanced stages of AIDS. We talked on the phone each of the next six months. One day I called David and his phone was disconnected. No forwarding number. No information. That was it. I knew he'd died.

I felt sorrow, disturbance, and guilt. Sorrow, for the loss of a true friend in the prime of his life. Disturbance that no closure seemed possible. And guilt, for putting David off when he initially tried to reach me and for not arranging to go meet with him after I knew he was dying. I reacted less than what I now know is best and was too thick-skulled or busy at the time to recognize the grace I might have represented to him--and he to me. Forgiving myself has been necessary. I have a long way to go to be the friend I intend to be, or was intended to be.

Then, this summer, I was at an annual conference that brought together pastors and church representatives from Indiana and West Virginia. During the proceedings, an 80 year-old man was introduced as the newly-appointed part-time pastor of a small church in the West Virginia town David had lived in. The old preacher even had David's same last name. Couldn't be, I thought. But it was. It was Richard, David's step-dad.

At the end of the session, I made my way to Richard and introduced myself. It took him just a few seconds to recognize me. When he did, he reached out his arms and I did, too. We hugged and cried together after all these years. "I loved David so much," he said, "And I miss him." "Me, too," I said. We talked together for a while and several times again before the conference ended. I finally felt a sense of peace about David's shortened, tragic life. And I felt gratitude at being given the opportunity for some closure, as well as reacquaintance with David's now-frail step-dad.

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