I met Benny when I was twelve. He was one of a bunch of kids from my neighborhood who all hung out together for one long summer on a hill in Highland Park. Many of us were from extremely dysfunctional families or single-mom households. I think we all gravitated toward each other as a result of our perceived insecurities within our own biological families and general pre-teen angst. Parents could be raging alcoholics, fathers could desert their children, but your friends would never let you down. We clung to each other that summer like our lives depended on it, and maybe they did. To this day there's never been a group of people I've felt closer to, and I'm proud to say that I still count some of them among my best friends. We shared a profound bond that will never break completely. It was a "Stand By Me" kind of summer, without the dead body.
Benny was sweet, beautiful, vibrant and exciting. I fell in love with him before I really knew what that even meant. He carved my initials into his arm to prove his love for me; it was the most wildly romantic thing I'd ever heard of (and, in hindsight, really pretty bizarre and kind of alarming). Young love is fragile and fickle, however, and he broke my heart when he fell for someone else a few weeks later. I got over it - sort of - and moved on. After that summer I didn't see him because we went to different schools. I ran into him about a decade later and our "affair" briefly fired up again. And then it ended again. (Sadly, the scar left by my initials had faded by then.) And ten years later we repeated the process. And again ten years after that. I was able to capture his attention for only a few days and then he'd disappear - off to Florida, Hawaii, Washington, wherever - for a decade.
In 2004, out of the clear, blue sky, Benny appeared on my doorstep like he'd never been away. He was the same frenetic Benny - smiling, eyes twinkling - but I could see physical changes in him that indicated he hadn't been living a healthy life. I'd known for a long time that he'd had trouble with drugs and alcohol, but not quite to that extent. He'd survived at least one very serious suicide attempt that I knew of, and I hoped that he would stay in Pittsburgh and clean up. He had two older sisters here who adored him and would look after him. He didn't stay in town at that point, but came back again for Christmas. When he came back I invited him and some of the old Highland Park gang over for a reunion. In retrospect, it was as much a farewell party as anything. But that night was magical - pictures of that party are full of orbs and good energy. It was the first time we'd all been together in close to thirty five years and it felt warm, familiar and secure. Benny went back to Seattle where he'd been living, and then returned in the Spring. He'd decided to live here permanently again. He arrived in town with two incurable diseases he contracted through IV drug use. Neither of them had to be a death sentence, but he told friends that he viewed them that way. He continued his downward spiral.
The last time I saw him was two years ago when he and my friend Chuck put a new roof on my gargage. I thought I'd love having him around, but his behavior was so disturbing and so un-Benny that I made a conscious decision not to be around him any longer. It was obvious to me and everyone who knew him that he was using and he didn't seem particularly interested in getting clean. He was headed for disaster and I didn't want to witness it. I kept tabs on him through Chuck, but I never laid eyes on him again. Aside from work, Chuck didn't hang out with him, either. Benny found people who were into the same things he was.
Chuck told me yesterday that at one point Benny asked him why I hated him. That makes me feel awful -- I never came anywhere close to hating Benny. I could never. I hated what he was doing to himself, but I always loved him. And now he's gone. Part of me is relieved that he's not torturing himself anymore. Another part is devastated that he wasn't able to conquer his addiction and whatever drove him to it in the first place. A part of me feels guilty that I shut him out even though I know it would have made no difference to the final outcome. A part of me is really pissed off at him.
One thing is certain: My world is darker tonight for his absence.
Rest well, Benny, and wherever you are, be kind to yourself. You were always worthy of love.
All Is Well
"Death is nothing at all,
I have only slipped into the next room
I am I and you are you
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
Call me by my old familiar name,
Speak to me in the easy way which you always used
Put no difference in your tone,
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was,
Let it be spoken without effect, without the trace of shadow on it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was, there is unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near,
Just around the corner.
All is well."
By Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918)
Canon of St Paul's Cathedral