I lost my oldest and dearest friend a few years ago. Richard and I had been pals since the 3rd grade – about 60 years if anyone is counting. As I recall, he got his mouth washed out with soap by Mrs. Singer for uttering a curse word (probably mild by today’s standards). I thought it was cool – and we became lifelong pals.
I got the news from Richard’s dad, Jack. “Lenny,” and there was a pause. I recognized Jack’s voice; he was like another father to me growing up. “I have some bad news.” And I stopped breathing for a moment. Then came the words I knew would follow: “We lost Richard yesterday. He died of cancer.” Tears welled up in my eyes, just as they are now as I remember the moment. I could barely get the words out. “I’m so sorry Jack. I’m so sorry. I’ll call you back.” Then the impact hit. My best friend was gone. A piece of me died in that moment, to be replaced by a flood of memories that rushed in to fill the void. This writing is dedicated to the memory of my lifelong friend, Richard Casey.
We all understand friendship. Or do we? My loss compelled me to give closer examination to something I had just assumed I understood. It wasn’t that easy to explain the pain. It would take some reflection. Friendship, like its close cousin, love, is more easily explained than it is defined. It is more often felt, than understood. It is often said that if one has as many friends as he has fingers on one hand, he is blessed. I have had a few more, so I feel especially blessed – though one finger rests in solitude.
FRIENDSHIP IS TRUST
Another dear friend, Lou Oneal, who passed away a while back, used to explain that, “ a friend is someone to whom you can make the request, ‘I need a favor.’ And the reply will be ‘it’s done, what is it.” In that order.” I always liked the simplicity of that explanation, but while necessary, it was not sufficient. There was more.
FRIENDSHIP IS TIME SHARED
Back in 3rd grade, and the adolescent years that would follow, one didn’t ponder the deep philosophy of friendship. A friend was easy to define. He was someone you would walk creek beds with, for endless hours of discovery – always in the quest of perhaps finding a dead body! He (a girl couldn’t possibly be a friend at that point in life) was someone you could spend the whole day with and then beg your mom to spend the night (his or your house) because you hadn’t had enough of each other’s antics. Then you’d stay up all night watching TV, sharing scary stories, building forts, playing games (none electronic), or anything else you could get away with until the adults yelled, “lights out!” Casey and I and the Galos brothers and a few others fit that convenient description.
We would goof off in class, swap rumors about girls (concerning subjects about which we knew nothing), and trade baseball cards. We would hang out at the “Rec” (recreation) Center and play basketball, baseball, and football – or just hang out. We lived about 2-3 miles apart, but it never seemed that far. It was an hour’s walk and even shorter by bike. Kids walked everywhere in those days – or rode a bike. Parents weren’t paranoid about their kids being outside. We were supposed to be home for dinner, but invariably the request would come: “Can I stay over at Casey’s? Pleeeeeeezzzzeeee!” (or vice versa).
FRIENDSHIP IS KINDNESS
Not all kindness involves friendship, but any friendship has to be built on kindness. I observed a heart-warming example from my son, Michael, when he was in the 2nd Grade. We were out shopping and he walked over to me carrying a stuffed Teddy Bear, asking if he could get it. I said, “Michael, you’re a little old for a Teddy Bear aren’t you? Or do you have a special little girlfriend who that is for?” “No, Dad. It’s for this little kid. He’s in kindergarten but he kinda looks up to me. He broke his arm and had to go the hospital and I thought he’d like this. He’s a friend.” I learned something special from him that day; and I was very proud.
FRIENDSHIP IS SHARING
Richard and I would continue through high school together. There were girls, sports, paper routes, parties, relative innocence and social awkwardness. We did take ballroom dancing lessons (girls!) and developed some rudimentary social graces. Of course, we were taught respect for elders and authority figures as a baseline for the other elements of civil behavior. Jack wasn’t Jack in those days. He was Mr. Casey.
Richard and I both worked at Uncle John’s Pancake House (along with George Kern). We would develop a lifelong enjoyment of time in the kitchen – and for many years, an aversion to pancakes! I started out washing dishes and graduated to busboy. I never made it to the lofty role of Short Order Cook like Richard and George, but it was a job, and jobs were a ticket to independence and freedom... and cars! (I remained friends with “Uncle John” - Jack Holder - for many years. 30 years later I would join him for coffee at his restaurant, and he still had waitresses working for him that I worked with as a kid!) I did graduate to construction which paid better, though was harder work!
With the money we made from our jobs, Richard and I bought our first cars - both Model A Fords (yes, they were antiques then too!) They were both black, original equipment, and had a top speed of about 50 mph. Actually, at about 48, mine would shake a bit and the radiator cap made menacing noises. We tooled around town, went to drive in movies, cruised “the main,” and expanded the bond of our long friendship with our matching “wheels.” Friendship was about sharing – things and experiences. They weren’t necessarily special things, but the friendship made them so.
FRIENDSHIP IS RESPECT AND HONOR
When we got out of high school, we enjoyed that first summer with beach parties at Santa Cruz, lots of fun, and little in the way of worries or concerns about the state of the world. I had been accepted to the University of Oregon as a pre-med student. My friend Richard was not sure of his plans so he decided to attend community college for a while until he found his inspiration. (He would find it later in life as a banker, where he would enjoy a career of considerable success and distinction. Who would have guessed!)
I transferred back to the area after my first year – a bit homesick, as I look back – and a desire to attend my first choice of schools, Santa Clara University. By this time my pal had made a decision. He would do his duty for God and Country - as our fathers and uncles had done, and many before them. He enlisted in the Navy. We would connect, as we always had, when he was home. He was the military guy and would boast kiddingly of protecting us brat college kids. My time would come. As would his.
When he completed his service, he returned to become a college kid – at Santa Clara. We were reunited once again. Soon, it would be my turn and I enlisted in the Army to become an officer and serve as he had. I spent 3 years with the Army and grew up a bit – we both did. We learned respect for each other, and the honor we felt towards our friends, family and country. I was proud of him – and I’m quite sure he was of me, though we never told each other. We didn’t have to.
FRIENDSHIP IS EMPATHY
Empathy involves putting oneself in the place of another. In the words Bill Clinton would immortalize, “feeling their pain.” Another lesson learned by the teacher from the student!
One day I came home and was reading the paper as my son walked in – his head completely shaved. He was a sophomore in high school at the time as I recall. With astute intuition, he cut me off before the first words could leave my mouth. “Before you say anything, let me explain.” “I’m listening,” I proffered up with a sardonic smile. “Well,” he continued, “one of the guys on the basketball team was diagnosed with cancer and he is going through chemo and all his hair came out. We didn’t want him to feel alone, so we all shaved our heads.” Nothing more was said – ever. I simply hugged him and sensed the tears we both shared. An act of genuine friendship could not have been more clearly explained.
Looking back, that moment of my son’s empathy for a friend stricken with cancer hit’s home. How I wish that I could have known of Richard’s battle sooner, and perhaps offered him that same level off support and understanding.
FRIENDSHIP IS ENDURING
It’s been 55 years since my life-long buddy had his mouth cleansed with soap. He has died but once; but a million memories remain, not one of them bad. We were the best of friends growing up, and we remained close throughout our lives.
Even though years would sometimes pass before we would meet up, we were never really apart. I always knew I could pick up the phone and hear a familiar voice; he knew the same. We were always connected. Friendship is a spirit, and like our very souls, it endures. It exists across space and time, it survives challenges and mistakes, and it knows no physical limits – even death.
I am saddened by the loss of my dear friend, and in the sadness I am reminded of my own mortality, and of others to whom I have said goodbye. Life is precious; but true friendship is perhaps even more so. Life is a stroke of good fortune, but friendship is a choice. I chose wisely. I like to think Richard did too. God be with him – and God be with you, Jack.
Santa Clara High School, Class of '64