Some people have many friends. I’m not that person. While I know many people, I count very few of them as true friends and fewer still are in the inner circle.
Steve is one of those in that circle. I’ve known Steve since I was in high school. I met him because he dated my younger sister. She met him because he knew my mom from her work as a campus counselor at the college in Brockport, NY. At least for me it wasn’t love at first sight. He was just this guy. And then he became a friend.
Over the years Steve and I had some good adventures together. We did some carpentry together, drove across the country, went to Hawaii and renovated a building, and started a coffee company. He was at my wedding. Over the years, we emailed each other not weekly but nearly. We talked on the phone a couple of times a year and we got together when I was back in Rochester or nearby there. There are lots of people that I spent more time with, and the same is true for him, but it misses the point to think that accumulated time is the measure of a friendship.
Every time we talked it was like we had paused for five minutes instead of five months. It was all one big dialog. We talked and messaged about politics, cars, motorbikes, and the random goofiness of life—just the other day he sent me an Internet sightem of a motorbike some guy had made out of a Citroen. We also talked about religion, philosophy, metaphysics, love, sex, life, Jung, God, Gnosticism, Agnosticism, and isms I can no longer recall. He knew the substance of my heart and I like to think I knew what made him tick.
Yes, past tense has arrived. I learned today that Steve was killed in a freak accident. He was riding his bike, swerved to miss a dog, fell and never got back up. One of the people closest to my heart is dead and I’m shattered.
Steve believed in God. He was a Christian Scientist and took strength and comfort in a life informed by study and prayer. I was raised in the same religion but no longer believe in God. I say this because in the midst of the pain and emptiness I feel, I at least don’t have to labor with pointless questions about “why?”
Why does a dog pick that moment to run into the road? Why ride that road vs. another? Why does a man so full of life and love die before his time? Why must a woman so filled with life and love for this man, now have to live without him? How is it right that a mother and father have to bury their son? What makes it okay that a brother can no longer pick up the phone to shoot the breeze or ask a question? What plan is served here?
There are no useful answers to these questions. It just happened and now we have to deal with it.
Fortunately there are wonderful memories. My wife told me today that Steve is one of the few people we know that lived his life just how he wanted. If that’s not a true statement, he sure did a fine imitation. There was always something broken to fix, some odd part to be sourced, some project his wife needed doing, some new demand from Church or family and at least to my eyes and ears, Steve was always amused, bemused, and entertained to be doing it (yes, I did hear him swear at a particularly dumb piece of auto engineering from under some car or other but that doesn’t count).
His laugh came from his toes and took his entire body with it. His smile made his large head ten times larger. He walked like a fullback and skied like a drunk. Everything he did, he did with purpose and determination. I struggled to keep up.
In my mind, Steve was a wizard with a wrench. If it was mechanical and it wasn’t working, he was the guy you wanted nearby. If it was a British car (and later and Alfa Romeo) that went double.
Some years ago I bought a 1966 Austin Healy 3000, the famous “Big Healy.” It had belonged to a guy I vaguely knew and had been sitting in a garage for years going on decades. The interior had become a mouse hotel and the boot looked like an elephant had sat on it, but everything else was straight and true.
The car sat in my garage while I tried to sort it out. Not being a wizard with a wrench I quickly got to the point where I was out of tricks and the car still wouldn’t start. So I called Steve.
Steve always answered the phone the same way. “Hea-low.” I can’t write it the way he said it but if you know him, you know what I mean. Steve had a Healy some years ago and had taken me for a ride so memorable, I wrote a story about the experience that won me a sparkling grade in a 400 level writing class at University.
He asked me a couple of questions and then diagnosed the problem. He was of course right. The car was positive ground and I had put the distributor back together the wrong way. Not a big story or even an interesting story . . . but those are the kind of things you remember and smile about.
In 1980 Steve and I drove a ten-year-old Mercedes Benz from Rochester to Hawaii. Actually we only drove it as far as Los Angeles via Canada, Michigan, Chicago, Wisconsin, Rochester Minnesota, Wyoming, South Dakota, Missoula Montana, Seattle, and San Francisco (there’s a reason for remembering it like that). The car had belonged to my Grandfather and had grown down at its heels with rust. Steve and I did a brake job (alright, I helped) and tune-up. I had a guy put on a new front fender and paint it. Another friend (who oddly also died much too young) helped me install a monster hi-fi. We loaded the trunk with stuff, the back seat with snacks and cassette tapes, and off we went.
Back then we both believed, so we’d start the day reading scripture and chatting privately with God. Prayed up, fooded and fueled we’d pop a tape in the deck and keep the car pointed west. By the mid-west, we hadn’t run out of things to talk about but I can say for certain we were tired of the tapes.
Late the second night we pulled off US 90 at Rochester, MN thinking we’d sleep there. The signs for the Clinic View Hotel seemed inviting. For those not following the libretto, Rochester is home to the Mayo Clinic, and that was the Clinic in view of the Hotel. But we didn’t make that connection until we were walking down the hall to check-in, wondering why there were stainless steel railings down both hall walls and why the floors were all tiled. We literally ran the other way, got in the car and sped out of town . . .
. . . until there was this terrible noise and we lost our headlights. The wizard with the wrench was driving, got us to the side of the road, and soon puzzled out that the hood support—and you have to know cars of this type and vintage to know that we’re talking about an articulated armature with a big garage door type of spring on it—had finally gotten the best of the cancerous inner fender, punching through and taking out the fuse box with it. We spent the night in some Motel 6 in the middle of nowhere. Steve fixed things up the next day and on we went.
Later that same trip we started to notice a growing swarm of Harley Davidsons heading west. First one, then some, then it was like a bad dream. It wasn’t until later we found out they were all heading to Sturgis, Mecca for 50,000 Harley drivers every summer. We just thought we were going to die.
Somewhere in South Dakota we pulled into a rest stop. We were both in khaki shorts, tennis shoes, and polo shirts (at least I was). Steve ran on to the head, but I for some reason stopped to quiz a group of obvious reprobates as to why they were watching a leather clad monkey jump up and down on a kick-start of an obviously unimpressed Harley Davidson. What possessed me I don’t know but the story that unfolded was they were on their way to Sturgis (what?) and the owner of the big two-wheeled paperweight had just the day before installed an SU carburetor (as HD drivers did back then) and now the fucker wouldn’t start yet alone run right. You can see where this is going.
Back in the head, I told Steve about my great discovery. He being Steve wandered up to the sweaty and crabby mob and said something like, “What seems to be the problem?” Those weren’t the words exactly but it was like that: like of course a guy in shorts and a polo shirt would not only ask the killer throng but would have the answer as well. Which he did.
Somehow Steve persuaded the bike owner that he knew what the problem was and that he could fix it with a screwdriver or even a beer can pull-tab. It was a measure of the man’s frustration and anger that he agreed. With that, Steve rebuilt the carb (common problem aligning the jet and needle it turns out) and then said, “Let me show you how to start it.” Well that was too much for macho man, so Steve settled for telling him the secret incantation and order of services.
The bike started on the second kick and much merriment followed during which we learned that the death dealers were really laid off GM assembly line workers and were hale and agreeable gals and guys. Oh.
Which leads me to the only possible lesson I can at this time take from this. It’s simply this. All the clichés are true. In this case, it’s “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The Harley drivers were good folks. So was Steve. But for the way we all looked to each other, we might never have met and they might still be at that rest stop.
Another that comes to mind is “live each day like it’s your last.” Steve died on September 10, but it wasn’t something anyone saw coming. I have my own story about canceling an appointment on September 11, 2001 to be in the World Trade Center at 9:00 AM. We don’t get to know. What I do know is that to my eyes and in my heart, I know that Steve lived every day he was alive. He lived his days well. He loved and laughed and cried and did it all like nobody else before or ever will. He was his own person and we loved him for that.
Finally, I’m reminded of all the different versions of “Don’t go to bed mad at anyone.” Our friendships are too dear and too precious: Our family members even more so. I have thought about Steve all day and I can say with complete love and certainty that there is nothing I want back. There are no words I wish I didn’t say, no thoughts I wish I hadn’t thought, and no memories I wish would go away. They’re all nothing but good. I wish there were more of them, I really, really do, but I am treasuring and holding tight to the ones I have.
I loved Steve. I knew that before he died. I never told him but I know he knew. Today I made sure that the people close to me know that I love them. Please do the same.
Good-bye Steve. I miss you.