Friday, January 4, 2013

Goodbye to a Lost Friend

Bozeman, MT - From Moose FM (FM 95.1)
I put it down to the snow, which finally arrived in Pittsburgh the day after Christmas, but home and growing up has been on my mind a lot lately.  By home I mean Bozeman and the surrounding area.  As much as I love Pittsburgh and never plan on leaving, I do sometimes wonder what I've taken away from us by not pulling the trigger and going back to Montana, as was always the plan.  I'm not naive enough to think I can recapture some lost youth or anything, but I do miss the mountains, the wildlife, the smell of the air, the sound of running rivers.  Maybe I miss it more now because there is no football or hockey - or even a Presidential race - to distract me.   It's the place, not the people per se that call to me on these winter days, because almost everyone I know from my youth had to leave the area to make a decent living.  We're scattered to the four corners of the world and we're the pre-Facebook generation, so I've reconnected with some of my classmates, but others remain out of touch and therefore largely out of mind.  But, naturally, when I think of home, I think of the people I knew there, so I had also been reminiscing lately about the kids I went to school with - many of us knew one another from the time we were in kindergarten until we splintered off in different directions for college - and how that both seemed like a lifetime ago and only a brief moment ago.

As part of that mental exercise, I was thinking back to the last time I spent any significant time around any of them, which was at my 20th high school reunion, and that got me thinking back to the memorial that the organizers had set up at the mixer we had.  They had posted photos and a little information about all the people from our graduating class who had died in the intervening years.  There were so many.  It went all around the room.  Some I knew about, but some hit me like a punch in the gut as I walked past the four walls, looking at faces of people I'd known as a child who were no more.  There was the lovely girl Lori, truly an awesome individual, who died tragically right before our graduation when she was struck by a car as she stood at the end of her own driveway.  There was my friend Todd whom I've written about before here, who died of AIDS.  And the kid who grew up right behind me as one of a whole houseful of boys who lived in a pink colored house (I always thought that was his mom's act of rebellion for having to live with so many men) who had died of an accidental gunshot wound.  There were several of those actually - it's Montana after all - so a lot of us grew up hunting.  There was, as I recall, some deaths related to skiing/snowmobiling too.  And the inevitable traffic fatalities.  Again, it's Montana.  The wildlife aren't the only ones who grew up a little wild.  So maybe I shouldn't have been so surprised, but I was - both surprised and saddened to see that there were so many of us already gone.  But, by and large, they were accidental deaths.  People plucked out of life in a blink of an eye, unexpectedly and tragically.  Dear Todd being one of the rare exceptions, although equally tragic.   Staring out at the snow in the backyard on New Year's Day, all of this was running through my mind randomly.  Maybe it was just the snow dressing up Western PA to look like my hometown, maybe it was because I had time for random thoughts during a rare quiet time, but maybe something deep within me knew something was about to happen....

I was purposefully away from the computer all day on New Year's, finally logging in before bed and checking Facebook.  I had a message waiting from one of the dear high school friends whom I have stayed connected with bringing me the news that one of our classmates, Helen, had cancer and had been moved to hospice care.  I hadn't thought of Helen in years, but we were in journalism together, which became a little clique onto itself since we all spent so much time together.  The group of us were a motley collection:  nerds like me who envisioned themselves as future writers mixed in with the popular crowd - the head cheerleader was the Yearbook Editor.  But we all managed to mesh and get along.  If you segregate the kids you liked in high school into three circles - your inner sanctum of closest friends in the smallest circle, people who are friends, but not besties in the secondary circle, and people you know casually and like well enough to talk to in the hall or at a party in the larger outer circle - Helen fell into that second circle.  I considered her a friend.  She was more popular than me generally (who wasn't?); one of the rare people who can easily move within all the social circles without being shunned by any one of them.  Much like Todd could actually.  She was always nice to me.  For that alone, she earned my affection.  Yet, I hadn't thought of her more than passively in years.  I had no idea what had become of her or what her life was like.  Apparently it had not been an easy one.  Our mutual friend, who is actually on a family vacation and trying to find all of this out and report back to me while he's supposed to be spending family time, was able to learn that Helen was treated for "breast cancer about 8 years ago and the chemo/radiation harmed her kidney (I am surmising she only had one) and she has been on dialysis for years... "  He got hold of an address the next day, messaged me with it, and just as I was thinking about what I wanted to say to her after all this time, he sent me another to say that she had passed late on New Year's Day.  Whatever I would have said, it is too late.

Do not mourn for me.  This is not my loss, but I am sad.  I ache for Helen.  I ache for her family.  No one should have to suffer as she surely must have, but certainly not her.  She was, as I told my friend, Good People.  And there are the feelings that I used to see so often in my mother's face when a contemporary died:  a little fear mixed in with the sadness when one contemplates that we've now moved into the time of our lives when the people we grew up with are dying of things other than tragic accidents.  But mostly I tell this tale because it has occurred to me in the last couple of days that the people who are your friends when you are young and dumb are perhaps the purest of friends.  They accept you even when you are so arrogant as to think you have it all figured out and are in fact too dumb to know that you don't have a damn thing figured out.  They accept that weird awkward person that you are at that age, and that's something to treasure.  My largest regret is I never got to tell her personally I thought she was Good People.  Don't make that same mistake.  Hold in your heart and memories the people who accept you for all your faults and pimples and, if you can, tell them that you do.  You just never know if you'll ever have another chance.

Rest in Peace, my long lost friend, Helen Rose Gutkoski Evans.

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