A Cup of Conversation, February 2014 – by Michael Kell
Nothing cuts to the quick of reality faster than burying the young. For one brief moment time slows down enough for us to come up out of this world’s ether and see life in its natural state; brief and fragile, precious and final. No exchanges, no returns.
I met Rob in college. We became fast friends and joined the same fraternity our junior year. Life was bliss for lack of a better word. We were privileged, young, healthy and strong. All we had to do was graduate and then whatever our hearts desired. Rob was athletic, popular, and studied business. We were best of friends each with wild sides explored to the furthest reaching boundaries. Sleep was optional so we heavily mortgaged our youth believing there would always be a full tank the next day. We were bullet-proof evidenced by needlessly reckless decisions and carelessness only the young can afford. However, our season in the sun soon ended with graduation and we joined the ranks of the young urban professional class. Oh, the irony.
For the next few years we sputtered around together launching our careers. Those were fast years with the freedom, time, and resources enough to enjoy life at top speed. Rob was eventually offered the big job in San Francisco and moved away. Smartphones and Facebook were still science fiction so communication was limited. The week I was in the area on business we were to connect but I lost his number with no way of getting in touch. I remember taking the last flight out of SFO frustrated and bummed my buddy was somewhere in the big city wondering what happened to me. I figured he’d call to rip on me the next day but no call came. A few days later a mutual friend rang with news Rob was dead, killed in a motorcycle accident over the weekend. When I didn’t show he decided to go road racing in the foothills with his older brother, Bill.
The funeral was mid-week and the service was packed with family and friends. Still in shock, I entered the church late, numb and shaken. Looking for a familiar face of which there were many, Rob’s mother found me and asked if I would say a few words about her youngest son. Making my way up the aisle my mind was frantically searching for something of comfort to offer the grief-stricken family seated in the front row. Rob’s family was utterly despondent. Bill’s face was buried in his hands with chest heaving grieving sobs while a sea of faces betrayed broken hearts of everyone present. I paused, breathed deeply and slowly recounted a time when Rob and I were up late talking about seemingly nothing when the conversation turned to what frightened us most in life…not a typical topic among young men. Rob told me his greatest fear was to be left paralyzed physically or mentally…a prisoner in his own body not able to escape. The thought scared him to death. I finished by expressing gratitude for knowing and loving my friend closer than a brother, how he lived his years strong, full of life and joy, loved by many without ever having to live out his greatest fear.
A few weeks later a letter arrived from Rob’s sister-in-law. She recounted the whole story of what happened on the highway that fateful day. Up until after the funeral, Bill refused to talk about the events in real time. All anyone knew was a logging truck coming around a tight curve clipped Rob in the helmet as he tried to swerve out of the way. At the bottom of the embankment, younger brother died in older brother’s arms. The truth is Rob was still alive when Bill made the desperate decision not to stop the massive hemorrhaging from the severely crushed head. Bill chose to allow his little brother to bleed out life in his arms than risk him suffer a fate of physical and mental devastation. Can you imagine the guilt and second guessing tormenting his soul?
After the service, the older brother broke down and confessed all to his family. When Bill heard the words spoken about little brother being spared his personal living nightmare, he knew the decision was the right one, at least one he could now begin to live with and the entire family rallied around him. Bill’s wife wanted me to know the healing power in the words spoken that night and how grateful the family was their youngest had experienced the gift of true friendship on earth. The night of the memorial I told the family I’d never forget my friend. That was thirty years ago. I’ve kept my word. Be Good not bitter.
Michael Kell is co-owner of GoodBean Coffee in Jacksonville.