Through the connection offered by Facebook, I learned some sad news this weekend that a classmate from high school had suffered a heart attack and, as a result, had been placed in a medically-induced coma. At a time in my life when I still like to pretend that I am as young and spry as I was in high school, the news came as a tremendous shock, as well as a reminder about the fragility of all of our lives.
When I was in high school, a group of friends and I were consumed with the movie Stand by Me, which was based on a story by Stephen King. While we argued over which one of us most closely paralleled the character Vern (I was definitely Gordie), what drew us to the film was its depiction of the kind of friendship one seems only to enjoy in early adolescence. Like the characters from the story, we were an inseparable unit whose adventures ranged from wandering downtown D.C. in the late 1980s to biking all around the small towns that surrounded our home in Laurel. On camping trips, we drew up lists of goals before our 10th class reunion that included items like being shaking hands with the Pope to being the first to spend a night in jail. At the time, it seemed obvious that we’d continue to know each other for years, years long enough to tally our scores and regale each other with stories about our adventures.
Part of the power of Stand By Me, though, was that it not only understood the power of adolescent friendship; it also understood its limits. At the conclusion of the film, the four boys go their separate ways as the narrator tells us that their friendship changed as the boys grew. Two of the boys became “just two more faces in the halls” as the college-track students went a different direction in their lives. As the film notes, “It happens sometimes. Friends come in and out of our lives, like busboys in a restaurant.”
As we grew and changed, my friends from high school became less central to my life, and our adventures less frequent until we became the kind of people who occasionally creep on each other’s social media profiles or comment on an Instagram post from back in the day. Friends who were essential to my development in adolescence, people who helped me make the transition from a pretty troubled background into someone emotionally and practically prepared for college and professional life, friends who I could argue saved my life, became a part of my past, not part of my present. It didn’t happen as a result of some conflict, it didn’t happen overnight, but it happened, and like Teddy and Vern, I simply faded from their lives.
As I scrolled through the list of classmates on that Facebook message and saw my closest friends from 8th-12th grade and other people I hadn’t thought about in years, it was easy to recall all the moments I shared with that group of guys. It was always guys: most of us were hopelessly inept with girls back then, to the point that I can still recall, over two decades later, the moment when I had to hide in the backseat of my friend’s Saab while he and another friend delivered Valentine’s flowers to my crush.
That flood of memories also brought to mind the importance of another moment from the end of Stand by Me. While the narrator understands how friendships come to end, he also recognizes just how important those moments were, closing by asking “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
As I sent my virtual and real thoughts across to my classmate and wish for the best, it’s comforting to remember that the moments I’ve shared with the people closest to me, even if those moments and friendships are almost always finite, will always be a part of my life and something that has made this journey, the one whose end we can never predict, infinitely richer.
Friends may indeed come in and out of our lives, but even so, who among us isn’t better for the experience? As I send out all the hopeful energy I can muster for my classmate and friend in his hospital, I’m also sending out thanks to the people who helped shaped who I became and who made the not insignificant trials of adolescence not only endurable but some of the best years of my life.