I had three “best friends” in elementary school. That’s how I viewed them. They never competed for the title, and I know logically that only one person can be “best” at anything. But I guess what I’m saying is that each was best in his own way: each friendship was profoundly important in its own way. I am very grateful that two of the three friends are still in my life (though one only through Facebook, but that’s better than nothing). The third friend, Geoff Sanders, died on December 29, 2009. I found out yesterday.
I’m trying to make sense of my feelings. Can I say, first of all, that it just sucks? I’m surprised at how sad I feel about it—about him—since I haven’t communicated with him in any way for 25 years. It isn’t entirely for lack of trying. I periodically made an effort to find him online (without spending money on the search!). There was no sure sign of him—no picture or corroborating biographical detail—until yesterday, when through the magic of Google I came across his obituary.
Damn! I feel like I just missed him!
I know virtually nothing about his life after ninth grade. He graduated from Westminster, an elite private high school in Atlanta. I heard he was in school in Colorado years ago, which turned out to be true (if that’s where his medical school was). I’m reminded of that Dylan verse reminiscing about people from his past:
So now I’m going going back again, I got to get to her somehow
All the people we used to know they’re an illusion to me now
Some are mathematicians, some are carpenters’ wives
Don’t know how it all got started
Don’t know what they’re doing with their lives
Like the song says, it feels so random the way people flit in and out of our lives. No good reason sometimes—it’s not like I had a falling out with Geoff. It wasn’t intentional. I feel guilty about letting it happen, though.
I shared this thought with another friend and classmate: What if someone had told me when I was a kid, “You know your best friend, Geoff? The one whose life right now is so filled with promise? The one whose light burns so brightly? He isn’t going to make it past his 30s.” What would I have thought at the time? It would have seemed incomprehensible—something I never would have considered. How would that knowledge have affected my behavior, my choices?
I preach this all the time, but I still have to convince myself of it: There are no guarantees in life. Every moment is a gift to be treasured and not taken for granted. It’s that taken-for-granted-ness of my life that gets to me. When he was alive, I had the luxury of thinking, “It’s OK that you lost touch with Geoff. He’s out there somewhere. You’ll sort it out sometime. He understands.” I’m tangled up in blue thinking about it.
One thing’s for sure: friends come and go, but even when they’re gone, they’re not really gone. Memories of Geoff are so present to me. How could it have been 25 years? I’m overwhelmed with very small, Kodachrome-vivid moments.
Among them: Geoff had a vast library of vintage Mad magazines: stacks and stacks of the Super Specials. My mom wouldn’t permit a Mad magazine in our house growing up (probably for good reason, says the father of three young children). One night during a sleepover we pitched a makeshift tent in his bedroom and stayed up most of the night with flashlights reading these. I remember the smell of the yellowed pages.
Geoff shared my passionate early interest in the Beatles and music—or at least indulged my interest. We spent countless hours in my parents’ basement playing pool on a badly warped table (which doubled at times as a car, a tank, a boat, or a spaceship), listening to cassettes on my boom box. We puzzled over the clues of the “Paul is dead” rumor after Z-93 broadcast a radio special on the topic. For my birthday one year, he even got me a vinyl LP of Magical Mystery Tour, my favorite Beatles album, which I spin to this day. I thought of him every time I pulled that record off the shelf over the years.
He also lent me a copy of Pete Townshend’s amazing solo album, All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes. It was my first exposure to anything related to Townshend or the Who. Since I have a son named Townshend, you can imagine how formative that was!
He was my only friend who watched old episodes of Star Trek with me. Every other kid I knew thought they were too slow and boring. His dad took us to see the Wrath of Khan, which seemed like a life-changing event at the time. We also snuck into our first R-rated movie together, at the old Briarcliff Village 99-cent theater, vowing never to tell anyone. Tron was another important cinematic experience we shared.
We spent much of one summer learning to play tennis together on the Henderson High School tennis courts. I had gone to a tennis camp earlier. Geoff, who had never played, was a much better athlete than I was and quickly surpassed me. Earlier, my next door neighbor gave me an old set of golf clubs, with some balls and tees. We made up our own course across several neighbors’ yards—a neighbor’s swimming pool was one water hazard. We left divots everywhere we went! I’m not sure how we didn’t break a window.
So many perfect childhood days. You know what those are like. To recall one great memory is to have a dozen more crowd into view. But I hope you get the idea.
I also remember that his family was very kind to me, and to one another. He had two older sisters (on whom at some point I had mad crushes before even knowing that I liked girls). Unlike me with my sisters, Geoff never seemed to fight with them. I’m sure they did fight, of course, but mostly they just plainly loved one another—the whole family was like that. I noticed and appreciated that even as a child. I was also fascinated by Geoff’s dad, who was English. Between Paul McCartney and him, it’s easy to see how I became an Anglophile.
All that to say, I hope, that Geoff was an incredibly important part of my childhood—which is gone forever, of course. But that’s been gone. The difference is that he’s gone, and with him that part of myself that only Geoff brought out of me. I haven’t possessed that part of me, or had access to that part of myself, in 25 years. As long as he was out there somewhere, living and breathing, I didn’t have to miss it so much—it lived with him, at least. But no longer.
As I said, it just sucks.
God’s blessings on you, Geoff. And thank you. I hope to see you again.