"Growing apart doesn't change the fact that for a long time we grew side by side; our roots will always be tangled. I'm glad for that." -- Ally Condie
“You won’t believe what happened when I was at the principal’s office,” my mom said when she stormed into the house, angry after another conference between her and my teachers and principal. It always seemed those teachers didn’t appreciate my comic wit, nor my perfect timing. But my best friend Brandon did. “I told them how you were a good kid unless Brandon was around you. And you know what? They told me his mom said the exact same thing about you!”
I was offended then, of course, but now looking back on it several years later (close to 30 now, I reckon), it was probably the truth. I had the reputation as the “good kid,” corrupted by Brandon’s wild reputation. But truth be told, during those five years of elementary through early high school, we brought out the best (worst?) in others countless times.
Somehow, Brandon and I became friends during the summer after fourth grade. I’m not sure exactly how, but I remember one day visiting his grandparents’ restaurant. He was there, where both his parents worked, and he came up to the table where my family sat, and he addressed me by name. I was a child of a physically and emotionally abusive household, so another kid knowing my name meant a lot.
Somehow, we hit it off quickly. He shared the last name of my maternal great grandmother, and our grandparents were distant cousins, so we decided we were family. That made the relationship feel like a natural fit. He was the big bully who sometimes beat on me; I was the scrawny smart Alec who sometimes got myself into trouble by an ill-timed wisecrack. But when other bullies wanted to charge in on me, Brandon had my back.
We were typical Alabama childhood friends. There are memories of Pee Wee football, late night cable channel explorations, and baptist churches, where our pastors would prey on our emotions and try to deprive of us our confidence in the gospel, so they could get us to walk to the front for a conversion again.
Probably the fondest memory of Brandon I have is when we tortured our sixth-grade science teacher. For one thing, she had a peculiar speech pattern and a nervous tic. After every second or third phrase, our teacher would say “right?” Of course, Brandon and I hopped on that, and we would over-pronounce it. We got to the point that we would say our exaggerated form throughout her lecture, but just enough where we could hear it without being detected. One day, she heard Brandon say it, and she said, “Now Brandon, if we have any frogs, we’ll put them out in the pond. Rrrrooooiiiight?” We both convulsed in laughter.
Another day, we had a torrential rain. Before classes started that day, I made several of my friends laugh by jumping into the water run off. Our science class was second period of the day, so we arrived early and went out to the drainage area before the bell rang to start the class. I wanted to jump in the rain again to make Brandon laugh, but as I leapt, my foot slipped, and I fell into the rapidly running trough of water.
Granted, Brandon thought this was very funny, so he laughed a lot. But I was soaked. We tried to attend class as normal, but I dripped and splashed everywhere. My teacher saw the soaked footprints I left, and she made me clean them up. Of course, I left fresh prints walking back across the front of the classroom. She made me clean up those, too. Then there were another fresh set of prints. She made me clear those up as well.
This cycle repeated the entire class time, and I can still hear my friend’s chuckle as I repeated my slushy job throughout the class. I’m pretty sure the class didn’t learn much that day.
It’s now been close to 30 years since those days, but I can still hear his laugh, see his smile, and feel the love we had. Now, we were boys, so sometimes we fought. And since he was the bigger dude, he won those rare fisticuffs. But we loved each other.
I remember playing football in the parking lot of his grandparents’ restaurant on Saturday afternoons. His younger sister was the same age as my sister, so there were cousin sleepovers that involved sibling fights, with all four of us together.
There was one time when the four of us were playing dodge ball in my parents’ yard. I hit his sister, but she claimed I missed her. So I angrily threw a ball at her. Brandon said, “You don’t bean my sister,” and started pelting me with an assortment of balls. Remember, he was bigger than I, so that day hurt a bit.
Another day, he was pretending to choke my sister. But he forgot how strong he was, and I could tell by her face she was in trouble. So I planted a knee to his groin. He let go my sister to chase me, and that made me have to take off running. I was smaller, but also faster. So I escaped punishment that day.
We made it through ninth grade as friends. But after that year, his family stopped coming to church, and we had different classes at school. As you get older, you make different choices, and have different interests. So we lost touch.
The last time we spoke was a couple years after graduation, when I was about to enter my first marriage. He was already married with a child, in what we call in Alabama a “shotgun wedding.” He cautioned me to make sure I knew what I was getting into. I was sure, but I wish in retrospect he had offered that advice to my ex-wife. (Note to those reading: Don’t marry someone who wants to keep dating other people after the wedding.)
We both ended up divorced from our first wives, so he probably knew what he was talking about.
These and many more memories went through my head as I looked at the closed casket. I had just moved home from a distant state, and I wanted to reconnect with him. Among other things, I wanted to tell him about a church I finally found, one that preached confidence in the gospel every week instead of despair.
But that didn’t happen.
I hadn’t been sure how to contact him all these years later. He wasn’t on Facebook, but his sister was. One day, I heard his eldest son died in a tragic accident, and I reached out to his sister to find out arrangements. By the time she responded, she informed me that the day after his son’s funeral, Brandon suffered a fatal heart attack. It had been close to 20 years since I had spoken to him, and more years than that since we had been close friends.
But in an instant, all those years vanished, and he was the big kid with the wide grin, egging me on to mischief.
It may sound strange to grieve that much for someone you haven’t seen in 20 years. But childhood friends are the best. Though years may pass, the memories remain.
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Very clear, readable story, Micah. It truly felt like you were speaking from some of your past experiences.
Glad you enjoyed it