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 of alcohol, a connoissuer of fine booze; was even working on a coffee table book, Serenity on Ice, that combined this with his other outside-work passion, photography). I stood among his many colleagues, a few friends, & his ex-boyfriend that he lived with until he left Boston, & 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, yet still also distant; as I have spoken to his family & now stand with his friends, 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, Sean & I met online, and 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. [wry 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 ease his tension; 21-year-old me was almost unaware of my disability, and 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. He recognized the truth before I did. But then, that was Sean... putting it together before anyone else had even 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, and 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 that was ALSO five years after we began, and maybe there’s something to be said for that.
Side-by-side, faceless in the dark, when worn out, hurt, or downtrodden, we existed in the quiet moments; & he told me things that troubled him, & about things that he wanted, & asked me what to do. And I told him what I knew of the world, & what of it troubled me, & asked how I might set his anxiousness 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 just as much about what I taught him; and in doing so affirmed for myself. I doubt I was the only one he learned these lessons from, & I know I was not the only one he saw well-met in the dark, but I am so glad to think maybe I helped.
I helped him learn how to have & exercise power by letting go of control. I taught him some of the best tricks for[ emotionally] manipulating oneself, & how to have other people think one is saying what they want to hear while saying only exactly what one means & believes. He[ having been a gunnery sergeant in the Gulf] used to say that to make a soldier, they have to break a man, and all the king's horses… so I'd remind him every chance I got that things which have been broken, although they can never be the same as they were, can be better in lieu of that. I saw how his past twisted him up inside and tried to help him learn how live through that pain not as a duty nor a punishment, but as an adventure… And I learned from him how to have confidence. How to be effective at having control. How to make attempts boldly, recognize mistakes, and how to be more 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 subsequently succeeded. He thanked me, almost every time he saw me, for setting him free. I wonder if I’d have been so eager to help him break his chains, if I’d known he would fly away so soon.
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, instead letting 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 could 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 holding each other in smoky 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 to make that happen, we barely had one more year with him in Massachusetts. Then, after a final Christmas holiday spent keeping each other warm, I helped him clean his office out while we talked about his health. Finally, he shook my hand, hugged me tightly, & quietly moved home… as we can now suppose, 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 holding tight to each other 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, Sean might admit that he was the smartest one in just about any room; any other time, the buzzword was ‘humility’. Sean was the kind of guy who would sin to atone for having performed 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 the conclusion that he was so before I did, 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, and 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, and 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 so much good, you have done quite well.[beat][imperative tense + a hint of pleading:] Have a rest.”
[Omitted lines in the reading today were flubs, not censoring.][ EDIT; Approaching 4 years on, something disturbing has happened; please see the entry Cracks in the Ice.]
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 sang it for him was always meant to be just me by myself on that hill with his memory.
And although it took me until later, 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 found one last puzzle he left us. Damn it. What a beautiful mess you were, my friend. Though you never meant him 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.