Going On

Going On

From Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul

Going On

My best friend, James, lived on the farm next to ours just outside a small town in Ohio. My father was the town doctor. Jim’s father was a farmer who could make anything he planted grow. My father kept a few head of cattle and some horses. The only thing we grew was fodder for our animals. So while Jim had to work a lot on his dad’s farm, I could get my chores done in a couple of hours.

After school we often walked the two-plus miles to his house. There was, on that country road, a bridge that spanned Twelve Mile Creek. The roadbed was about fifteen feet above the water and, in the spring when the rains made the water deep enough, we used to get naked and jump off the bridge a time or two on our way home.

It was a scary and, we thought, daring thing to do. There was also a sign that said diving from the bridge was forbidden, but it didn’t say anything about jumping so we believed we were on the right side of the law. There were plenty of boys in our school who wouldn’t do it, and that fact made us feel heroic.

After our jumps, we would sit on a rock in the sun until we were dry enough to put on our clothes. Those were the times we would really talk about stuff. Jim wanted to be a farmer like his father and his grandfather. He had the gift for it and the will to do it. I wanted to find a way out of my hometown. I wanted to see how people lived all over the world, to know how they did things, how they thought.

Unlike almost everyone else who had a goal closer to home, Jim did not discourage me or tell me that I ought to want what he wanted like lots of people do. If they farm they want you to be a farmer, or if they have a business they think you should have one, too.

Jim was easy about the plain fact that life would part us, that we would grow up into men who would not see each other every single day. Strangely, this was the part of my future I did not want to come about. Even though I was determined to leave town, I was also determined not to leave my friend. That made an interesting dilemma that we talked about now and then.

“Well, Bud,” he said one day, “there’s this about life. You can’t have something both ways. That’s just a fact.”

“I know that,” I said, “but because something is a fact doesn’t stop me from wanting it not to be.”

He laughed then. He had a huge laugh for such a little guy. I was about six inches taller than he was, and he was about six inches smarter than me . . . he liked to say that.

“Well, good luck,” he said. Then, “Let’s do one more. I feel like one more.”

And he got up from the rock, ran to the bridge, climbed up on the guardrail and balanced for a moment. The bright sun shone on him and made him look radiant. Then, instead of jumping, he dove.

He pushed off hard from the edge of the bridge, arched his back and spread his arms in one of the best swan dives I had ever seen. He seemed to hover in the air before he ducked his head, straightened his body and cut into the water.

We went home after that to his house. His mother was the best baker who ever lived, according to me. She made bread every other day so her kitchen always had that yeasty smell I loved. And in the spring she made nutmeg cookies . . . big, round, rich, white cookies that made milk taste better than you could ever imagine. And that is what we had that day, sitting in the kitchen talking to Jim’s mother as she worked. It seemed to me she knew almost everything, including the capital of Paraguay! It was no wonder to me that Jim loved her so much.

The next day Jim was not in school, and I thought his dad had kept him home to work on the farm because spring was a heavy-duty time for a farm family. But when he didn’t appear the day after that, I got worried. I was about to call him up when my dad called me at home and said he was coming to pick me up. That scared the daylights out of me.

Though I sometimes went on calls with him after school, I was always the one to initiate that adventure. He never called me to go with him. When I asked him why on the phone, he said he’d be home in a minute. And he was.

As we drove the short distance from our house, he told me that Jim was sick. He had a virulent pneumonia, and there was nothing anyone could do except wait and pray.

When we got to the farmhouse, Jim’s dad opened the door, and I followed my father into the house and up to the second floor. There was only one light in the room, and it was beside the bed where Jim was lying, covered with blankets and breathing hard. His mother stood beside the bed and was in the act of changing a compress on his head when we arrived.

I was more frightened than I had ever been in my life. My father examined my friend, and then he bent over his body and began to breathe into his mouth. He did that for a very long time, until there was a sudden rasp of air from Jim’s lungs. Then silence. My dad kept on breathing for him until Jim’s mother went to the other side of the bed and put her hand on my father’s shoulder.

“He’s gone, Doc,” she said, and sat down on the bed next to her son. Jim’s father led us out of the room, and I followed my father to the car to make the long, terrible drive home.

I did not know what to do. I did not know how to get hold of my feelings. I spent most of the time crying and the rest of the time trying not to cry. Jim’s family had his funeral from their house as many people did in that small town. Everyone came. Everyone went to the cemetery. Everyone looked awful.

For weeks afterwards, I moped through my life. My mother and father tried to help me, to talk to me, but I heard nothing. I went to school still, but didn’t work or speak much to anyone. I just shut everyone out. Everyone.

Then on a Friday, as summer neared, I walked the gravel road that led to the bridge where I had last been with my friend. As I came closer, I was astonished to see someone sitting on our rock. I shielded my eyes against the sun and could tell immediately it was Jim’s mother.

She saw me coming and motioned to me to sit beside her. I really didn’t want to do that, but I understood I had to. We sat for a long time, not saying anything at all. I felt worn out and so sad that I couldn’t speak. Finally, I leaned my head against her shoulder. She put her arm around me, and I just lost it.

She said nothing while I wept the last of my tears. Her dress smelled of her kitchen, and somehow that comforted me a little. Finally, when I could speak, I said, “I can’t get over it. I just can’t.”

“Why would you want to?” she said in a soft, sweet voice.

“That’s what you have to do,” I said. “‘Get over it, get past it, move on,’ people said.”

“You just told me you can’t do that. And you are right. What we have to do is make Jim’s dying a part of us, just as the rest of his life was. You must take it into yourself. Breathe it in. Take it into your soul and let it remake you. A young man who has lost his best friend is a very different young man from one who has never had such a thing happen.”

What she said struck me with such clarity that I sighed and sat up. Sunlight dazzled the surface of the water below us. And for the first time in many days, I could once again see my friend . . . see how he had helped shape my life and how he would be a part of it forever.

We sat together for a long time. Then Jim’s mother patted my hand and said, “Cookies?” And so we walked in the fullness of the day, between the hedgerows and Queen Anne’s lace, past the fields of corn growing, ever growing, to the farmhouse on the hill where I had learned so much about love.

Walker Meade

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