Many musicians have penned tunes about old friends, but my favorite is the Roger Miller song that says, “Lord when all my work is done, bless my life and grant me one old friend.’’
It’s a simple song, dealing with everyday things friends long familiar and comfortable with each other do: “Playing croquet till it’s dark,’’ “pitching pennies in the park,’’ “swapping lies of life and loves,’’ and so on. The lyrics bring memories of unremarkable times that define friendships — events hardly noticed in the moment but remaining in the memory forever. The lyrics speak of a bond created when two human beings enjoy being with each other. The longer the friendship, the stronger the bond.
I’ve had many acquaintances but few close friends in my life. I’ve never been one to seek out others. Friendships have come almost by accident. That’s how it was with my friend Kay, who died just a few days ago of complications of lung cancer. She was 84, lively and active nearly to the end. She had a good, long time to enjoy life. It wasn’t enough time, though, not for her, not for her husband, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren or old friends who didn’t think of her as old at all.
Kay was a nurse, married to a guy who worked most of his life in education. I got to know them because Nancy, also a nurse, started taking our kids to the beach on afternoons off. As happens to mothers with young children of generally the same age, she fell in with Kay and another nurse named Carol. Soon I was hanging around with those women and with the husbands, Dick and Virgil. That was sometime in the early summer of 1973, so 47 years ago. I guess that qualifies as old friends.
As young friends, we squeezed in as many weekends and holidays on the Missouri River as we could, camping and boating, talking and sharing meals. In those days of undeveloped shoreline above Oahe Dam, we had sandy spits of land to ourselves nearly every weekend — just us, our kids, a campfire, a river as flat as a glass table-top and a sky that stretched as endlessly as the summer days and our friendship. We shared songs and hopes and dreams. We skied almost non-stop. The three women would cling to tow ropes while the guys rode the boat and then the guys would switch, riding skis while the women ran the tow boat. It wasn’t pitching pennies in the park, but we often skied and talked and laughed until dark.
Memories of those times have lasted through all the years. So have images of Kay tending to the kids on the beach, her own and her friends. Our younger son, Andy, came along late, and I can see Kay nestled in an aging beach chair, snuggling our Andy as if he were her own. She did that with everyone’s kids, right up to the time she was too weak to hold a baby. I also can still see her chasing a toddler Andy across the sand, clutching a tissue, trying to catch him to wipe catsup or mustard or sand from his face.
On outings in kayaks, I liked to paddle away to explore the shore. Kay preferred that we all ride the currents together, and I guess I’ll always hear in my sleep her voice her voice hollering at me to get back to the group.
As we aged, we began to watch out for each other more and more, helping with skis, holding a kayak steady so one or another of us could climb in or out. Perhaps we became the people Roger Miller meant when he wrote “Old friends, looking up to watch a bird, holding arms to cross a curb.’’
Kay is the first of our three beach couples to leave us. I used to figure it would be me, since I got cancer at age 50. I think that would have been easier. I wouldn’t have to feel the overwhelming emptiness she left for those of us who remain to mourn and remember one old friend.