I read at the memorial for my friend. Many of us did not know he had died in time to attend the funeral, or could not make it to Ohio. So now, on what would have been his 35th birthday, we gathered in a park on a hill in the city because that was what he loved. They’d planted a tree. We spoke. We remembered, we discovered, we drank scotch he had given his ex once( Sean was a great lover & connoisseur of alcohol). I stood among his many colleagues & a few friends, & his ex, & I told them:
“There’s... so much I don’t know. It’s 9 or 10 years since Sean & I entered each other’s lives, & perhaps the best description I can give without raising the wrong questions is that I was a very, VERY close acquaintance. I Yet, still also distant; as I have spoken to & now stand with friends & family, it is overwhelming how much of his life I never even heard about. I never really even drank with him! This man who so famously held nothing back built fences that left us strangers to one another. He tried to fix it last year, called me & others to his side while with his family, but I was too wrapped up in me to heed. & now I want nothing more than to be wrapped up in my friend who has passed beyond my reach.
Sean Perish Bender. He never did even tell me what the P stood for. [chuckle] Perish. I found out by reading his obituary. I think he’d like the implied wordplay. But then, names were never our big thing. He could never remember my middle name & disapproved of my later decision to combine for a compound first. & we didn’t know surnames until some three-quarters of our time was gone. For so long, we only knew firsts, which, for that matter, we pretended not to, & never used them. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
A long, long time ago, Bender & I met online, & we were supposed to go on a date. He had to reschedule. Then I had to cancel & he didn’t care to commit to another time. Other people & projects that would have a long-lasting impact on his life had begun to take shape & occupied his time, required all his attention. I often think that, had we actually gone out, we might have ended up... never really knowing each other at all. [mischievous smile] We would probably have found each other insufferably arrogant & faulted each other as useless a decade ago; 25-year-old Sean Bender was impatient & secretly angry at the world, unsure how to release his tension; 21-year-old me was almost unaware of my disability & puzzled at being unable to accomplish much with my clearly evident resources & talent.
Instead, when we encountered each other offline shortly thereafter, neither owned knowing it was the same man from before for, I think, five years. We were there for a reason; although we perhaps gave credit to a different one, at first. Sean recognized the truth before I did. But then, that was Bender... putting it all together before anyone else had found all the pieces. Usually, I’m the one doing that; yet he could be almost done by the time I recognized there was a puzzle. & with such a placid or bemused look on his face.
Ugh, another reason our date wouldn’t have done much good: I found him handsome enough on the whole, but I must have dumbly stared at his more awkward features( nose anyone?) sometimes, as my gaze often made him self conscious & eager to please, to right imagined offenses. He was far less attracted to me than I to him, as well; within twenty minutes of first laying eyes on me & meeting my gaze, he confirmed that had we gone on our date he would have found my looks utterly lacking in any compelling feature. Of course, we were comfortable enough to say those things then, since the first time he saw me at all was ALSO five years after we began.
& maybe there’s something to be said for that. Faceless in the dark, when worn out, hurt, or downtrodden, we existed in the quiet moments; & he asked me what to do, & at my behest he told me the things that troubled him, & the things that he wanted. & I told him what I knew of the world, & how it troubled me, & how he might set his fears to rest. When reflecting on a valuable person, it is common to think of things one learned from him or her. Yet I cannot help thinking as much or more about what I taught Sean. I doubt I was the only one he learned these lessons from, & I know I was not the only one well met in the dark, but I am so pleased to feel I helped.
I helped teach him how to let go of control in order to have & exercise power. I taught him some of the best tricks for manipulating himself. I helped teach him how to say exactly what one means & believes, & have other people think it’s what they want to hear. I reminded him every chance I got that things which have been broken can never be the same as they were, but can be better in lieu of that. I tried to help teach him how to face fear & live through it not as a duty or a punishment, but as an adventure, and an opportunity... he thanked me, every time he saw me, for being the critical influence in setting him free. I wonder if I’d have been so eager to release him from his cage if I’d known he would fly away so soon.
& I learned to have confidence. To be effective at having control. To make mistakes enthusiastically & be mindful thereafter. That I have power to engage friends in my ideas & thus change their lives dramatically for the better–Sean was among the first to make a special effort to tell me I had done so, though far from the last; & yet without his persistent gratitude regardless of context, I might not have even had courage to try where I have succeeded.
Perhaps I should have moved sooner than I did to bring us out of the dark & face-to-face. I had my reasons for picking my moment, though. But certainly, following that, I waited far too long to take the next step, & let us remain largely as we had been–he was, after all, the first person who ever engaged me at a high level on a wide variety of topics, to the intellectual satisfaction of both of us. Uniquely in my life, we would talk over each other & not become upset, because we were both able to follow the other’s thought while still simultaneously speaking about something different. Of course, we could have had–& ultimately did have–the same kinds of conversation while going out to lunch at sidewalk cafés like normal friends, instead of huddled in isolation in smokey private back rooms. I should have worked on turning our words about sharing “real life too” into action before it was too late. By the time I pushed it through, we got barely a year. Then after a final Christmas holiday he shook my hand, hugged me tightly, & quietly went off to die.
I wish I had made more time in the light, yet all the good we did each other may have only been possible by starting with two brilliant men alone together in the dark; & in many ways we made the most of it. Not that he would forgive my immodesty in saying we were that, nor the egregious compliment paid to him thus. If cornered, Bender might admit that he was the smartest one in just about any room; on any other day, the buzzword was ‘humility’. Sean was the kind of guy who would sin to atone for having been presumptuous enough to perform miracles. Although I often thought him to be the best person I ever befriended, I only realized after he had died that Sean was somehow one of my best friends. Hindsight suggests that, always steps ahead, he arrived at that conclusion first, probably right around when he was leaving Boston. Then again, leaving gave him an advantage of perspective that only his death would afford me: the immediate & concrete notion of us never meeting in this world again.
That grieves me, & grief has been new & strange & helpful & painful. But, Sean told me once that, after all that time in the dark knowing the world of my words only, I had worn a groove in him, made myself a niche, & he could pick out my voice in a chorus or over a crowd, would know my words instantly anywhere, in any situation; through anything, he would always know if I called to him. Time for a test.
[shouted:] Hey there, boy; you did good! Don’t roll your eyes behind my back, because I meant what I said: you did GOOD. Despite the stuff you know you fucked up, in doing such good, you have done quite well.
[imperative tense + a hint of pleading:] Have a rest.”
[Omitted lines in the reading today were flubs, not censoring.]
I also thought I might sing a song I wrote, but I couldn’t get my preparation finished; things kept going wrong. Now I think it’s because, while I’ll share it with the world soon enough, the first time I sing it for him was always meant to be just me by myself with his memory.
And although it took me until now, standing back at the tree after we all went to a bar; now everyone has gone I realize that in finding them, in finding him, & helping them find me & find him, I may have solved the last puzzle he left us. Damn it. What a beautiful fool you were, my friend. Though you never meant it to be my task, or it might have even been a simple error; mistake vs. miscalculation does not matter, I’ll do my best to clean up the mess for you.
You don’t owe me anything more, though; this one’s on me. If we meet again, you can get the next round.