On the Event of an Old Friend's Passing

On Wednesday, March 1, an old childhood friend of mine passed away. Ben Wartgow was diagnosed with brain cancer late in 2003. I visited him and his dad, Jeff, at their home in Eagle River in late January for the first time in years. I was very glad to have seen them again, and I was honored to be asked to be a pallbearer at Ben’s funeral. This short essay/reflection is the first of a few different topics I wanted to write something about as I consider the meaning of these current events and the importance of all the memories.

I sat down in the church next to my friend Clint, who I hadn’t talked to for more than a few minutes since graduation, and at once I realized that I sat in virtually the same place twelve years ago when Ginger died. It was and eerie sort of feeling, because at that moment, these two days didn’t seem nearly far enough apart.

I listened as Jeff read two of Ben’s favorite poets. I remembered Ben as a person who was at least as skilled with language as me (probably more so) and as one who loved books. But I had not known him to read poetry.

As the pastor spoke about Ben’s accomplishments and adventures as a student at UW-Madison, then later as an American professional in Japan, I thought of how all these things were news to me. At once I felt like a fraud, a stranger in friend’s clothing who had been disconnected so long that I was in a way unfit to be here, since there was so much living that had happened in the more recent years of Ben’s life.

I remember Ben’s preparation to leave the States for his first trip to Japan, when we were sophomores in high school. Those were the last days that I was very close with my friend. As I try hard to remember, I have some recollection of an afternoon in late summer – it must have been no more than a day or two before he would leave, and I said good-bye, fully expecting to return to this relationship in a year, and hearing all the stories of Ben’s adventures overseas. What a pivotal year that one turned out to be.

I can remember or imagine all sorts of reasons why we weren’t as close after that, and in some time and place it may be worthwhile to consider those things more deeply, but when I think back on the last seven years of my life, there are not a lot of things that I would change. I doubt that Ben would have a lot of regrets either. What makes me more sad than to realize how I missed out on the those years of friendship with Ben is thinking about how now—as grown, formed, adult men—we probably could have been very close again.

I sat with Clint in the basement of the church eating lunch, chatting about the days growing up. I missed out on those same years with Clint, for similarly unimportant reasons. I made sure that before we parted, I got his phone number, email, and promised to keep in better touch. I hope that it’s not an empty promise; I certainly don’t intend it to be, but who can tell on a day like this one?

Clint and I agreed that time keeps moving faster and faster, and as we continue to get older, people get more and more involved with their own lives, their own families, etc. That’s why I can sit here quite calmly, wishing that I would’ve known these old friends better in more recent days, but refusing to regret the way things have unfolded. I try to keep the faith that the Universe continues to evolve as it should. It is a comforting thought, and relieves anxiety.

In these last seven years, I’ve had three of my grandparents pass away. I loved them all very much, and, as I’ve learned in my Christian upbringing, I look forward to seeing them again on another plane of existence. But I must honestly admit: until today, as I helped to lift Ben’s casket into the hearse, I have never longed more deeply for the day when I might join all of them, when I will look up my old friend Ben, and get to know the man he had become.

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