Somewhere in the distance, a phone rings. The room is pitch. No one calls me in the middle of the night, so when I hear my husband answer I assume it’s for him. Disgruntled about disrupted sleep, I croak, “Who’s that?”
I never expected what happened next.
He hands me my phone and I’m met with the shrill sobs of my friend’s wife, Susan. Through them, I hear, “I really need a friend. Sam* died.”
You know those movie scenes when someone launches from lying to sitting like a springboard? That was me.
Five years ago I joined a local APA league (American Poolplayers Association) playing 9-ball on Wednesday nights. This is where the love story of my husband and I began – with this group of people, a pool hall, and our weekly games there. Sam was the captain of my team before I switched to play on a team with my then fiancé. Sam and my husband? Well, they’ve been playing together for twenty some years. They have chapters to their friendship story I’ll never know about.
Beyond being my captain, Sam was the friend who stayed on the phone with me late into the nights after I became a single mom. His voice was my companion on many nights when the walls to my empty house would begin closing in on me.
Sam was the friend who never let me live down the time I called him because I’d locked myself out of my house. He drove over to help me break back in. But first, he asked me if I’d checked the windows?
“Of course,” I scoffed, “How dumb would I have to be not to check the windows first? They’re all locked.”
“Are they?” He asked as he slid my front bedroom window open.
Sam was the friend who would call me in the middle of a workday to just say, “What’s up?” We’d talk about anything and everything from how our siblings drove us crazy, to kids, to my husband and Susan, his wife and my late-night caller. We’d talk about how we survived the personality differences. See, our marriages had similar relationship dynamics. He was the social happy-go-lucky partner who didn’t sweat the small stuff. She was the more introverted type who stressed the bills and responsibilities and all the boring day-to-day things we women worry about. I’m social too but, obviously, working on being more positive. Being prone to negativity though, I was sometimes able to shed some light for him on why she did the things she did that drove him crazy.
I’m an advocate for love and working through your problems, rather than giving up. I’ve had to learn (and I’m still learning) not to throw in the towel after every bump in the road with my husband. There are A LOT of people whose advice is to leave when things get tough, and that’s something I don’t want to hear. When I’m struggling, I’d rather hear advice on how a couple makes it through tough times together. So my advice to him was always to find the best way to be happy and together. I think this is why he confided in me.
Now I’ll never know…
I screamed into my phone at Susan, “What? What? What?” I thought she was being dramatic. Or I’d heard wrong. Or I was still asleep and this was a bad dream. Or she was playing some sort of twisted prank. Or she’d misunderstood and maybe he was in an accident but still alive.
Or anything other than, “Sam is dead.”
I was able to understand her tell me she was at the hospital, and I was driving on the highway before I realized I was in my car.
It’s not at all how it is in the movies. He was there, blanket over most of his body, and a tube still in his mouth. All we could see of him was his face and hand. The movies show you actors with white makeup to make them look pale. In real life, I was looking at my friend’s face swollen and purple. I saw his features but they were distorted. It was his face, but it wasn’t his face all at the same time. I had to stare at him for what felt like hours before I believed it was Sam.
Of all the people I’ve known in my life, Sam was one of the most vibrant. My husband is a lot like him. Permanent smiles on their faces, they don’t let much get them down. They thrive on making other people smile – Sam through jokes and my husband through being the one everyone calls to come to their rescue. They both make the space around them brighter.
Seeing Sam’s face without life created a void bigger than the entire universe.
The emotions a woman is capable of feeling at one time is enough to steamroll someone. My friend is gone. His wife, also a friend, has lost the love of her life. Sam is one year younger than my husband. My husband recently collapsed and we still don’t know what happened because he won’t go see the doctor. This could’ve been me crying over my dead husband’s body. It’s not me. But it is my friend and I feel her pain. I mean I really feel her pain because I’ve never been more scared of losing my husband than when he passed out so I literally can imagine what she’s feeling finding her husband collapsed and he didn’t wake up. And now I am more scared. And my heart weighs more than the building we’re standing in. And the world is emptier, and quieter, and darker. And I want to console my friend whose loss is something world-ending, and I want to cry because I just lost my friend. And I’m relieved because he called me only a week before to say hi because he was in my neighborhood fixing a fence. And in this terrible moment of sadness, I’m beyond happy because I answered. Despite hesitating because I was sinking in a swamp of work, I answered. And he stopped by and we talked and caught up on things. I hadn’t seen him in a while because my husband and I recently took a break from our Wednesday night pool league. And I took it for granted the idea we’d just go back one day and all our friends would still be there.
And I was confused because Sam’s been playing in the league for 34 years and he has friends on his team he’s known since high school and Susan called me. His one son was there at the hospital already, and the other son was on his way, but he has three brothers she could’ve called. Why me? Susan and I are friends, but I felt closer to Sam and always thought Susan hadn’t like me much. Like we were friends only because of Sam. She and I recently joined a ladies-only team together, and we were finally getting to know each other as friends outside of Sam, but it was still new.
I’ll never know, but I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. I may have only known Sam for five short years, but sometimes the quickest sparks have the biggest burst.
The last time I saw Sam, when he got ready to leave, we said, “See you later.” I had no idea that would be the last time I saw him alive. I had no idea how comforted I’d be knowing I’d made the right choice to put my work aside and answer the phone. And how happy I’d be that my husband answered my phone in the middle of the night instead of silencing it so we could go back to sleep.
That’s the lesson here. Life is too short to put the people you love on hold. I know I can’t be available to my friends and family all the time. Work needs to be done. I’ll exhaust myself if I never spend some time alone. I can’t go back to saying yes to every invitation or else I’ll burn out again. But, when I can say yes, I want to always say yes.
Life is too short to hold grudges. To get mad over unimportant things. To not laugh at ourselves. To not take care of ourselves and spend time with each other. That’s what life is about. Us. Our families. Our friends. We never know when we might see someone alive for the last time, so I want to make sure I see the people I love whenever I can before I can’t anymore.
During his life, Sam would’ve been the first person to tell you, “Life is too short to be mad, or sad, or anything other than happy and loving life.” He was a happy person and he wanted everyone around him to be happy. The only time he wasn’t happy was if he couldn’t make someone laugh. And that was something that didn’t happen often.
I’ve heard people (like Sam) say, “Life is too short,” my entire life and I always thought I understood, and maybe I did, but not like I do now.
And the thing is, when you lose someone, you realize you’ll eventually lose everyone… And once you know that, you can never forget it.” – Davis Pickett to Aza Holmes in John Green’s most recent novel Turtles All the Way Down, the book I just so happened to begin reading a few days after Sam’s death.
The universe is talking to all of us all the time. There’s a reason I joined the league and met my husband and fell in love with him and why I met Sam and we became friends and why Sam met Susan and fell in love with her and why I met Susan and why Susan called me and why I was one of the people there the night she needed someone. Perhaps, had she called the friends who’ve known Sam for longer or were even closer to him than I was, they might not have been able to set their grief aside to be Susan’s shoulder.
I’ll never understand why his laughter was silenced, and I’m probably not meant to. But, there’s a reason he was taken from us too young and too fast. He taught us what he could while he was alive, and perhaps he’s meant to teach us more with his death.
What I do know, is the greatest honor I can give his memory is to never forget how short life is. How fleeting our opportunities to be with people we love are. How lucky I am to have a spark of light for a husband. How lucky I am that I got to know Sam and I’m getting to know Susan better now. How lucky I am to have kids, and a mom, and a mother-in-law, and friends to drive me crazy!
So that in moments like last night, when my son tried sneaking out of bed for, “just one more drink of water,” I was able to put aside the usual aggravation at him delaying bedtime. I scooped him up and said, “Nope. Nope. Nope, you don’t.” And instead of either of us getting upset, we erupted with laughter. Because before long I’ll be missing these days of crafty need-to-get-out-of-bed-one-more-time excuses. Because in that moment, my life as the mom trying to tuck her wiggle worm into bed was just plain funny. And someone I loved dearly taught me to see the funny side of life.
Thank you, Sam, for bringing laughter to the moments in my past when I needed to find things funny. May I never forget to see the humor in life. May you rest in peace and may we all find peace while we’re missing you terribly.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.
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