Fate’s reprieve

I can’t boil it down to 140 characters.

I don’t know why I feel compelled to even consider doing that. Maybe it’s the cook in me who knows that a well-simmered pot will eventually find its essence. Maybe it’s the social media “expert” in me who understands that brevity is the only way to reach today’s audience. Whatever it is, I keep looking for ways to reduce all this to a quick tweet on Twitter.

I can’t do it.

And so, there is this:

One of my best friends could’ve died yesterday morning. Or maybe he would’ve been paralyzed from the neck down. Who knows what another fate might have ordered during that freak accident. Whatever stepped in the quarter-inch between his broken C7 vertebrae and his spinal cord…well, I owe that bit of warbling energy a bit of gratitude. And this is it.

About a decade ago, we all sat in an apartment. It was where our friend Chris Gulfman lived. He was fastidious and clean, a man who always knew (within a factor of one or two) how many beers and how many chicken breasts were in his fridge. He had old coin-operated candy machines next to his television. We weren’t allowed to use them.

“Don’t eat the fruit,” he demanded.

Gulfman was one of the most real people I’ve ever known, and he welcomed we married men into his place when the NCAA tournament began. We took off from our jobs at the TV station that Friday, played Monopoly, watched basketball games, listened to the Grateful Dead, and lived our young lives.

We called his place Melrose Gulfman because a couple of exotic dancers lived across the breezeway, and they would wander in while were there. It all seemed so unseemly and so real. It was a soap opera on which we got to play walk-on roles. The girls were lost souls, we were professional and married young men, and Gulfman was the link between us all. They were stories we planned to tell with winks for the rest of our lives.

We started to grow up. Gulfman found the love of his life. We stood for him at his wedding. We drank and sang and declared ourselves men. The inconsistencies and failures of our youth were behind us. We were adults, no matter what was across the breezeway.

Any man who has lived this part of his life knows how it goes from here. Men recede happily—if reluctantly—into family life. They spend less time with their friends. They don’t take off work on the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The little indiscretions of youth become happy memories and stories you tell on the few and far between nights you get a chance to hang out.

Or, in short, you grow up.

But, what you don’t expect, what you never plan, what you can never handle is a call that comes in the middle of a morning a year or two later that tells you Gulfman is dead. There is nothing in all your training that can prepare you for the fact that a man you considered your brother just died out of nowhere—in his early 30s—from a brain hemorrhage.

There is something about true friendship that makes you believe it will simply last until you’re gone. You account for the time you’ll spend with your bride. You account for the time you will spend with your kids. But you never do the math and make time for the space that fate will indiscriminately strip away.

And so, you sit by yourself and cry for a friend you’ve lost, and you vow to never again take friendship for granted. You stand together when the funeral is done, you cry in each other’s arms, and you tell the old stories. You promise to not let life grow in between you.

But you do.

You move away from each other. You let your life get away from you. You get caught up in the whirlwind of family, work, and whatever it is that drives us from generation to generation. You worry about everything that you will surely someday understand means nothing. It’s not your fault. It’s simply how your brain and society dance.

But then you start to grow old. You find a gray hair on your chest. You think about your blood pressure and what you eat. You start exercising, not in the hope of looking better at the pool, but in hope of living longer for your kids. Or, in short, you realize you’ve not only grown up, but you’ve grown old.

It’s a tough spot. I’ve not yet fully understood it. There is a gray and uncomfortable space between thinking you’re young and understanding you aren’t anymore. If I had to guess, it’s a lot like it must be when one is dying, a moment in which you understand that no matter how much you would wish it otherwise, it is inevitable.

That’s the problem with fate. You believe because it’s inevitable you have to accept it, and you simply hope that fate doesn’t deal you wrong again so soon.

But then one day a few years later, you wake up to news that maybe fate didn’t wait so long, that maybe one of your closest friends–a man who has saved you from yourself more than once–might not have made it until sundown. That’s when you simply stop, breathe, and say thank you for the fact that it wasn’t worse.

Tonight, my friend was convalescing at home and still struggling to understand what happened. I took him dinner. We watched NCAA ball and remembered what it was like a decade ago at Melrose Gulfman. We were old, but were alive.

And so now, I sit at home. My NCAA bracket is busted in the first round. My wife and kids are fast asleep. My older boy has a baseball game tomorrow. And I’m sitting here watching Pulp Fiction again and being thankful the last 48 hours weren’t worse.

Because, as it stands, one of my best friends could be dead right now, and instead of sitting here thinking about how he beat me out of 47 points in an Open-Face Chinese Poker game tonight, I could be sitting here thinking about buying a new suit for his funeral.

There aren’t many things I consider essential in my life. Even the dreams I’ve never revealed here don’t compare to the value I put on the essential parts of my life.

My real life is my family and my friends, and it’s only when I lose one of those people that I feel truly broken. It’s already happened more than I want and more than I thought I could ever handle. Tonight I’m thankful it didn’t happen again, and I still can’t think of a way to reduce that to 140 Twitter characters.