I’ve gotten a few emails this month that have made me think about gravity and glue. One of of those words evokes eternity and nature. The other seems temporary and man-made. I’m thinking about which one fits best.
In 2005 I lost a long-time friend. He had a stroke at the age of 45. It was one of my first experiences with being broken. A few days later, at his memorial service, I also witnessed and felt, for the first time, the sight of parents grieving the loss of a child. Dan’s father spoke of how wrong it was for loss to be experienced out of the natural order. It’s supposed to be children eulogizing parents, not the reverse.
That day, though, I also experienced the power of reconnection. I’m thinking about that today.
I met Dan when we were in fifth grade. We went to different elementary schools, but in the summer we landed on the same Little League team. Later that summer (this will sound very nerdy), we found ourselves in the same bunk at a Safety Patrol Camp for kids who would be “officers” in the safety patrols in 6th grade. We bonded over our baseball fandom and the fact that we were the only ones in our cabin who followed politics.
We stayed friends through junior high and high school, and when we went our separate ways for college, Dan made sure we stayed in touch. In those days when expensive long distance rates were a real thing and cell phones were a fantasy, Dan managed to keep a group of us connected. He wrote letters during our college years and organized road trips to Florida during vacations. He made phone calls and visits in our post-college years, when we had settled into lives and jobs that were 300 miles apart. I had left the state where I’d grown up, but a part of me still considered Maryland my home. Almost as much as my parents’ home, it seemed that Dan had gravitational powers that pulled me back to childhood connections. He kept in touch with everyone, not just me, so whenever I returned home, we got together, and he would reconnect me. He knew what all of our friends from high school were doing. He knew everything about the news from inside the beltway. He told me everything I needed to know about the sports teams I could only superficially follow from Connecticut. There was no WashingtonPost dot com for me to visit. I relied on Dan dot com.
When my friend Kent called to tell me that Dan had had a stroke and later that he had died, it was as though I became untethered. I was never the best at corresponding or phoning, but it hadn’t mattered. I had a friend who did it for me. I read a fellow teacher’s blog post earlier this month that had a line, “Have friends who are better than you.” I had that in Dan.
As I rode the train down to Maryland, I wrote and wrote, almost as if I was making up for the letters I hadn’t written before. I wrote to Dan’s parents. I filled a legal pad. At that point in my life, I didn’t really understand a parent’s grief. I just knew that I wanted to talk about Dan, to keep him alive by listing every memory I could think of. I wrote to his parents, but I was really writing for myself, to keep myself from floating away from something that mattered.
At Dan’s memorial service I read only a small memory from very early in our relationship. It was a seemingly insignificant moment when Dan gave up an opportunity to join a better baseball team, choosing instead to stick with his crew. To me, on the day that it happened, it had seemed like just a pure demonstration of selfless loyalty. On the day that I wrote about it, it seemed larger, like an expression of the permanence of friendship, like a symbol of his precocious wisdom, and like the noble stolid steadfastness that was his spirit. I wanted his parents to know that other people saw what was great about him. I also wanted to hold on.
Then Kent spoke.
He gave a eulogy that not only captured many more features of Dan’s life, but also made me see that it wasn’t just me who’d been cut loose. A whole network of people were not only feeling emptiness, but also had that feeling that they had suddenly been disconnected. We were all broken, floating shards.
When all those disconnected people got together after the service, someone used the word “glue” to describe the role that Dan had played in our lives. Kent resolved not to let that glue dry up. Over the years he’s worked at keeping us connected. He’s organized reunions, sent Christmas newsletters and group emails. He’s even kept up with my haphazard blog postings.
This past month, he started another thread on Dan’s birthday. The subject line read “Glue Crew.” Most of us had turned 60 in the past year, a milestone we may not have wanted to mark. Kent wanted us to remember our mutual friend, but also remember that he would have wanted us to stay connected. Kent issued his own March Challenge, that we would all try to contribute something creative to let people know that we were still here and still sticking together. It worked. The thread thrived. People have contributed posts about their lives, musical recordings they’ve made, and photo-essays about their COVID year. One thing I realized is that we had not really been a connected group during our youth. Some connections were just now forming. We were several different groups connected by one person.
I realized one more thing as I read the thread: It was not really a supernatural, natural or immutable force that had been holding us together when Dan was alive. Gravity might sound more spiritual or mystical, but it wouldn’t be an accurate word. No, it wasn’t the force of Dan’s mass that pulled people together. It was man-made stuff. It was one person’s priority or his will. In that sense, it was much more like glue than gravity. Kent, probably as much an introvert as I, had decided to become the gluer.
I am blessed to have friends who are better than me, friends who stuck by me as a kid, friends who kept me connected to my hometown and my youth, friends who apply glue when things fall apart.