I am still slowly working my way through the essays in Appalachian Reckoning. A helluva lot of people struggling and striving and suffering who are too inconvenient to admit exist when you have a narrative of your own to peddle. Nevertheless we persist in existing, an inconvenient truth. A throwaway line in an essay full of them reminded me, in that bewildering, wonderful way the human brain connects random bits, of a line from a buddy of mine from middle school. Riffing on Robin Leach and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (then still on the air), he would, repeatedly, refer to the “lifestyles of the poor and dainty.” It was a funny line, but not one that had any real reason to be memorable. Again, the human brain is funny like that. I wondered what my old friend was up to these days. So I did what we do these days.
I looked him up on Facebook. I spent a few minutes browsing a very normal small town Facebook page before noticing that it was a memorialized account.
A quick Google search uncovered an obituary. Admirably blunt, it pegs my friend’s death on a lost battle with addiction. This isn’t the first time that has happened. Hey, fewer of us are existing every day!
Adding to the new hollow in my gut was the date of death. He died less than a year ago. Not just that, he died not a week after I left town, back home to show off the baby to family and friends.
You don’t need Facebook in a small town. The first person I told was my mom. She already knew. She doesn’t get out much but not much happens unnoticed in a small town. She also expressed surprise that she hadn’t told me. I don’t know which option is worse: that I talk to my mom so seldom that news like this doesn’t make the cut or that I could hear something like this and forget about it, that I could be so divorced from my place and my people that they are no longer real to me.
We lost touch. I probably hadn’t talked to him since middle school, high school maybe. But he was probably my best friend for the span of a couple years. Selfishly, I don’t want even the friend I gave up taken from me.
I will be home again in a couple days, and it will good to be back where roots run deep and branches wide (or, more importantly, my roots and branches).
It’s been two and a half decades. I don’t know why we lost touch. But it isn’t enough to erase things where I come from. We met up with my aunt the last time I was back home. My cousins are a decade and a half gone, my mom’s brother two and a half, my aunt and uncle’s marriage longer, but for my people—and, yes, contrary to what the academics in Appalachian Reckoning would tell you, our culture does exist—family is thicker than blood or legal paper (or actual family ties).
I feel vaguely ashamed for feeling bad. Too far back in line when I’ve too often been far too in the damn front of the line. But grief is a public good. It’s pain that I choose to endure because the alternative is far worse.
So I feel bad and a little ashamed I feel bad, but I don’t feel bad I feel bad. And I am disinclined to let people who are privileged by definition pretend that the people who will always be my people don’t exist. We deserve our human dignity as much as anybody.
But, this week, I just want to think on my old friend and grieve at what I was robbed of and what I robbed myself of.