During our junior-high years, he once punched me in the face and gave me a bloody nose.
In preparation for our Senior Ball in high school, he secretly asked the girl that I had planned to invite.
And after college, when my friends were planning a going-away party for me, he wrecked the surprise.
Yes, my good friend Bernie did all of these things — and more.
This is the one essay I really did not want to write. Bernie had been seriously ill for almost 15 years, and he passed away just a few weeks ago. When he was first diagnosed, the doctors estimated that he might live for five years. Obviously, he proved them wrong, yet he couldn’t hold on forever. This is the story of a special friendship.
Bernie and I attended the same Catholic school together, beginning in kindergarten. We really got to know each other, though, in third grade when his family moved in across the street from our family on Wilson Avenue. From that point on, we became pretty much inseparable because we began to share not only our academic lives but also our athletic lives. Bernie and I played basketball in his back yard together. We played touch football in the street together. And we played daily baseball games together all summer long with the neighborhood kids in the nearby fields at the public high school.
So for those ten years, from third grade through graduation, Bernie was my best friend, the brother I never had. If we were headed to the same game or gathering, we would always walk to that event together, share the experience, and, later, walk home together. We were so inseparable, in fact, that one of our friends referred to us as “Ham and Eggs” or “Peanut Butter and Jelly.” Yes, we laughed along with everyone else at those nicknames, yet, looking back, Bernie was exactly what I needed at that point in my life — a friend who would keep me company and watch out for me in that turbulent time of growing up and trying to figure out who I was.
As the only boy in a family with five girls, I needed Bernie and my other friends to toughen me up with all that athletic competition. And when Bernie and I argued one day about a trivial call, that’s when Bernie, who was at least six inches shorter than I, reached up and popped me right in the nose to make his point. Since I had never heard that particular argument before, I reacted foolishly; I cried and ran home. And when I got home, I was so embarrassed about what had happened that I simply cleaned up my bloodied face with the garden hose and never told anyone — until now.
After that minor altercation, Bernie and I were back playing ball together the next day. And we never spoke about that incident again. We simply moved on and talked about more important things, like Mickey Mantle’s batting average or how old we needed to be before we could deliver newspapers. No, we never had serious conversations, and that’s why he asked Filomena to the Senior Ball before I could. Neither one of us really knew what the other was thinking. We were there for one another in a much simpler way.
The book of Ecclesiastes describes friendship in this way: “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their work; if one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up” (4:9). Bernie was that friend for me. When he took over his older brother’s paper route on Van Dyke Avenue, Bernie asked me to help him, and he paid me fifty cents per day, a “good return” for my work. And I don’t think either one of us “fell” into any bad habits because we looked out for each other and, thus, avoided the isolation and loneliness that sometimes causes young people to succumb to peer pressure. Bernie was my rock, my solid foundation of a friend. Those who have had such a friend should count themselves fortunate.
After high school, though, Bernie and I drifted apart. I went off to college and a career in teaching while he became a fireman and devoted almost 30 years of his life to protecting and saving others. Sure, we still saw each other periodically at reunions, but we no longer lived in the same town, and our family commitments took up a lot of our time. Thus, I watched from afar as Bernie became a great husband and father, and I know that he lived so much longer than his doctors expected because of his love for his wife and children and because of their love for him.
In her essay entitled “Friends, Good Friends, and Such Good Friends,” Judith Viorst divides her friends into six categories, one of which is “historical friends.” She summarizes these friends in this way: “The years have gone by and we’ve gone separate ways . . . but we’re still an intimate part of each other’s past” (302). So, with Bernie’s passing, I have now lost not only an old friend but also a significant part of my life. And only Bernie would remember the details of that surprise party that he derailed.
I had just graduated from college and had volunteered to join the Peace Corps. Bernie and I were shooting hoops in my backyard during a late Saturday afternoon when he prepared to leave and said, “I’ll see you at the party.”
“Party? What party?” I asked.
“Oh . . . .” Bernie replied, not sure what to say next.
“Tell me. What’s going on?” I persisted.
“Nah. I really gotta go. Just do me a favor and pretend you don’t know anything.” Then he ran off. But before leaving for good, he called back and said, laughingly, “That should be easy for you.”
Yes, Bernie also had a great sense of humor. So even though he is no longer with us, he lives on through his family and his friends and all their stories and remembrances. I have my memories, too, and I am so grateful that God put this special friend in my life, a friend that I desperately needed and a friend that I will never forget.
The NIV Study Bible (The New International Version). General Editor Kenneth Barber, Zondervan, 1985.
Viorst, Judith. “Friends, Good Friends, and Such Good Friends.” The Simon and Schuster Short Prose Reader. 2nd ed., edited by Robert Funk, Susan X. Day, and Elizabeth McMahan. Prentice Hall, 2000, pp. 143–147.