This blog’s trajectory has often been along nostalgic back roads with frequent glances in the rear-view mirror. Curated by third-person narrators like Aunt Tomato and Lady Alone Traveler, car trips in the present do sometimes dust off old hockey pucks and the ghost of Shawn Walsh.
Last weekend, I chased a 20-year-old hockey memory, taking a trip to the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore Center. As I crossed over the border, I wondered if I should have gone alone. It would have been a sentimental journey in the classic Lady Alone Traveler style, my middle-aged self silently scribbling notes in my reporter’s notebook while eating popcorn in a loge seat. But lately, when I talk about myself in the third person, I am “The Duchess of Moxie” in humble homage to the remarkable Kate, Duchess of Cambridge. It didn’t seem right for a duchess to be jauntily zooming around alone at night, so I invited a friend to join me.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. And I suppose it was, in part, because I became privy to someone else’s memory and I was thankful to learn that I was not alone in collecting memories and time trinkets. Today, I share this story in muted tones so that everyone’s privacy is preserved and the compassion and love I heard does not die in the sweet six miles of car talk from the Spaulding highway exit to the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore Center.
Jeff and I met in 1975 or so, classmates in school. He moved away, I moved away, we moved back. We crossed paths somewhere in our small town and through random conversations, we ended up making the 90-minute trip to watch the University of Maine Black Bears men’s ice hockey team play the University of New Hampshire’s Wildcats. The rivalry between these two teams was once quite intense, reaching a crescendo when Maine beat UNH in the 1999 Frozen Four.
Jeff and I talked about hockey, marriages, and low-carbohydrate diets.
I didn’t feel like myself, but I kept my hands on the wheel and motored on. I took Exit 6 West off the Spaulding Turnpike onto Route 4 towards Durham and Jeff picked up his phone to read a text. He apologized and said his friend had died yesterday.
Like so many things in this broken world, the random juxtaposition of words like “friend” and “died” made my heart sink into the pit of my stomach. I said “oh my gosh, I’m sorry” and then said nothing more, hoping my silence encouraged Jeff to tell me about his friend.
He did. He told me about his friend’s difficult life and his struggles with the demons that would eventually kill him. He told me about his friend’s humor and his loving heart. Jeff told me how he had helped his friend, adopted as a baby, find his birth mother and know more about who he was. Jeff said he had seen his friend in the hospital before he died and “I told him that I loved him.”
Approaching the awkward merge in the road at the top of Main Street in Durham, I looked over at the old Congregational church’s spire. I wanted to reach over and touch Jeff, but I had no choice but to slowly navigate the lanes. There was Wildcat Pizza on the left, empty as the last students scurried out to the game.
“I’m really sorry,” I said.
Are there any good words for death and loss and sadness?
UMaine beat UNH 5 – 3 and allegedly the Whittemore Center was sold out. It didn’t feel that way. The arena felt dark and dull except for the student cheering section. Why wasn’t the UMaine band at the game? Why was there no Stein Song to sing after every UMaine goal? Why did Red Gendron seem like an old man creeping onto the ice after the second period?
When I woke up the next morning, tired from the trip and the late night, I kept thinking about this story and how Jeff’s very recent loss leaked out along the dark road to Durham. I was so tired; maybe that was why I woke up crying and missing my own dead beloved relatives and friends. Sunday morning dragged on with tissues and tears; I walked to a friend’s house and drank coffee.
I read the obituary in the paper a few days later and I thought of Jeff again. He helped his friend, who he loved like a brother. I thought of all those stupid and superficial commercials where the bonds of male friendship are subtly mocked with words like “bro,” “bromance,” “bro hug,” and a bag of Doritos. No…that was not what I had heard on the dark road to Durham.
I heard what sounded like a Biblical friend, the type that loves at all times, is closer than a brother, and is born for adversity. I heard what sounded like a lifetime of memories that will transcend time and loss.
Let brotherly love continue, Jeff. Let brotherly love continue.