That very transience has made me value the people who have connected with me - some of them at a very, very deep level, very quickly. But I guess I had been in some denial about how deeply those connections have affected me, until I learned of the death of one of those connections recently - my friend Ernie M.
It was May 2009, and Chris and I had just moved to Champaign-Urbana a couple weeks earlier. We had moved for Chris's job...and he had connections he was making at work. I was working from home, and the only personal connections I was making were those at AA meetings. One of the meetings I had gotten a little comfortable and settled-into early-on was the Monday Night Men's (MNM) AA meeting.
I distinctly remember the first time I referred to my significant-other as my "partner" at Monday Night Mens, at the second MNM meeting I attended. In my mind, the temperature in the room dropped about five or ten degrees, and I was afraid I might have outed myself to a not-so-friendly crowd.
But no sooner was the meeting over than this big fellow reached out to me as I headed toward the door after the meeting. He introduced himself as Ernie M., grabbed me in his big ol' paws and half-shouted, "SO...why don't you come to DINNER with us?..." Ernie's attitude made it very clear that he had decided I was welcome, whether anyone else thought so or not.
I couldn't go to dinner that night, because I'd already committed to dinner at home with Chris. But I got the message (not a new message, either) that my immediate gut-reaction had been nothing but unfounded, baseless fear - and forever afterward I was grateful for Ernie's very-typically unsubtle invitation and welcome.
As I started to attend dinners after the Monday meetings, Ernie also made sure that Chris knew he was welcome to join us when he got off work. Chris quickly got roped into the Monday Night Men's dinner circle, even if it was just to stop by and have a soda as we were wrapping up our meal. Chris and I also had several dinner and open meetings with Ernie and his wife Jane.
Jane really seemed to connect with Chris, and while we could go months without the two of us seeing the two of them as "couples," we always seemed to just pick right up where we left off whenever we would connect. Ernie helped organize our farewell dinner potluck when we left Champaign-Urbana for Springfield, MO earlier this year, and we managed to stay in regular contact through email and Facebook after we left C-U.
Ernie had struggled with health issues several times in the two short years we knew him - and he had a stubborn habit of waiting at least 48 hours after "we should get to the hospital" would have been a good idea. So it wasn't overly surprising when we heard that he'd been admitted to the hospital in Urbana on Friday, September 2nd. He always pulled through before...
But by Saturday, we knew Ernie was in trouble - heart problems, kidney failure, infection, you name it. A line from Wayne Watson's song "Home Free" rang in my head as we waited for news, 400 miles from our ailing friend:
Out in the corridor, we pray for lifeBy Tuesday, the Red Cross had been notified to bring Ernie's son Duane back from Afghanistan, and hope had dwindled to simply, "Please, God, just let him hold on until his son makes it home."
A mother for her baby, a husband for his wife
Sometimes the good die young, it's sad but true
But while we pray for one more heartbeat
Our real comfort is with You...
I heard that the Monday Night Men's meeting after Ernie's death went well beyond their typical 6:30 closing time. His 19-year coin sat on an empty chair, as the stories abounded about Ernie - especially his humor, his encounters with newly-sober folks, and his work with recovering veterans (he was a very proud Vietnam vet). If I could hope for a way to be remembered by my various home groups, that surely would be my first choice - to be "absent in body, present in spirit" and remembered for caring for others....
I'd gently mention, at this point, that Ernie was no saint. As loving as he could be, he also had a strong streak of bull-in-the-china-shop too. He had character features that sometimes went far beyond "charming eccentricity" - as we all do. That's why I would veto any petition for sainthood for Ernie, me, or anyone else I know in our little club. Ernie was perhaps what writer Ray Bradbury called "a porcelain genius - that is to say, cracked but brilliant."
But his presence changed people. I know he changed me.
A couple days after Ernie died, I went into a funk - thinking not only about Ernie but to a whole host of people who have changed my life in powerful ways across the last 20 years. People who my new friends in Springfield would never get to know, except for whatever could be seen of those distant folks in me. People like my first sponsor, Bob S., whose mind is still pretty sharp, even as he struggles with Alzheimer's. Bob's inimitable ex-wife, Brooke K., one of the first real definitions of "tough love" I met in our fellowship. Jon P., who invited me to Frisch's Big Boy after my first meeting and showed me the meaning of "giving it away." Brian D., the executive-turned-artist, who helped show me how to corral anger, rather than letting it run free. A whole bunch of crazy Irishmen and Polacks from the Toledo Monday Night Men's group, who showed God's love in the most irreverent ways.
And then the Kansas folks - my first Kansas sponsor, Bruce F., who told me "you'll have to deal with these issues of sexuality, sometime," thirteen years before I was willing to look at them. Crusty old Frank K., who continued to ask "Are you running for mayor again, Goddammit?" every time I went around shaking hands at the Lenexa "Basement Boys" meeting. Nick T. and Barry H., who walked me through some very tough times in later sobriety. Barry G., Lee Z., and so many others who went on in death way too soon.
The Chicago folks - Tom S. and Michael D., who gently herded me out of the closet like a pair of border collies (never pushing, but gently nipping at the heels). Fred K., the first person in the Chicago fellowship to welcome me. The crazy group at the Fireside Men's group - artists, musicians, comics, executives, and good ol' boys.
And Champaign-Urbana - the whole Monday Night Men's crowd, but especially my sponsor Terry S., Scott S., Ernie, John C., Bill B., Jim E., Robin H., Rockin' Rodney, Mike H. And Karen C., Doug B., Gil T., Andy C., Jason E., and so many others.
It's a fool's errand, trying to list them all - I could be here all day and night, thinking of the men and women who have blessed me by their friendship, both in and out of our fellowship and here in the blogosphere. As I have left them, they have left pieces of their heart with me. Right now, I am just feeling the absence rather strongly. I will never be able to sit down with each one of them and let them all know how much they have changed my life...but I know they have.
I was sitting here late one night, thinking about this "band of brothers and sisters," when I was reminded of a beautiful song that said what I could never say to each of them in person. The song needs a little background, though...
Near the end of the show, the two women confront each other, and forgive each other for all grievances, acknowledging they have both made mistakes. Elphaba makes Glinda promise to take charge in Oz, allowing Elphaba to disappear. The two friends embrace for the last time before saying goodbye forever. This song, "For Good," describes how each one has been changed by the other. In the Broadway performance, it is a duet with Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel.
Here is the song, with the lyrics included in the video. Listen along, and know that I owe a debt I can never repay to a whole host of men and women, who have woven pieces of their lives into my own story. I will always be thankful for all those - past, and present - who have changed me, for good.