I think Dewey and Vaudean Gimlin used to see me for what I was back then – Eddie Haskell, Wally Cleaver’s best friend on Leave it to Beaver. And although this was pretty correct, their son Mike and I used to feed off of each other. This is why we were best friends for about a fourth of my life.
Every time Mike got into trouble, Dewey pretty much blamed me. My long hair was probably why Dewey saw to it that Mike’s was never more than about a half inch – he was too curly to allow a military “flat top,” but this was the general idea.
Although I went to St Francis Xavier and he went to public elementary school, weekends and all summer long found us together. He was classmates with Paul Ensor and the three of us would always be together in some combination, typically together, and inseparable.
These were the days a mom could drop her 10 year old at the pool, and not see him again until dinner-time, and she’d still be a “good mom.” Back when we’d get up before daybreak on Saturday and fly off on our stingray bikes with fishing poles and spend the entire day at the ditch (crick for some of you), and come back with a “mess-o’-catfish” or empty handed, and burnt and exhausted, and fulfilled with what growing up in Sikeston, Missourah meant.
I remember one Saturday morning, knocking on the aluminum storm door. Normally it would be unlocked, and I’d peck on the front door, if it was even closed, and I’d hear the official welcome, “Come on in Billy!” But today, Mr. Dewey opened the front door, and spoke to me through the glass. His voice was stern, but that’s just how he was sometimes, especially if he was scolding Mike for participating in some of our shenanigans.
“Bill, Mike’s pretty sick, and won’t be able to ‘come out to play,’ today.” I assumed it must be contagious, because they normally asked me in.
“Oh, yes sir, uhm, ok, well.. Mr. Gimlin, please tell him to get better quick, my sister’s having a party this afternoon, and we’re gonna spy on them!” (Eddie Haskell indeed) “Sure, Bill, I’ll tell him.”
No big deal, we’d catch up later. Off I zipped a few blocks away to my classmate and other best friend Bob Leible’s house. We probably watched Johnny Quest and ate Alpha Bits and then played catch or whatever. Mr. Dewey or Miss Vaudean must have called Mom to let her know what was going on, because that evening, when I finally got home, she sat me down and told me that Mike was pretty sick, and not to go back over there until they called back to say it was OK. “But Mike’s going to be OK.” She was emphatic. I remember the emphasis, but I knew that already. “Of course Mike was going to be OK.”
Pretty sick to me meant the flu, or strep throat, or ‘chicken pops,’ or even a really bad sunburn. I had little concept of “pretty sick,” and certainly no concept of what pretty sick might lead to. My Grandpa and Grandma, and Papu and Mamu were all still alive. Mamu represented what really sick meant. She lived upstairs in her house in a steel bed, and whenever I was brought along to visit, she’d mumble my name repeatedly and nonsensically the entire time I was there.
I take that back. I did have a concept of death, but only from a far distance. When I was probably only 12 or 13, one of the kids on my street just disappeared. She just stopped playing with other kids and me. I remember her house, and that she was really sweet and nice, and very cute, and in band with all of us. Before anyone really knew she was gone, we were told that our little friend Kim Inman had died from something called Reye’s Syndrome. None of us went to her funeral; I guess you’re just supposed to shelter kids from depressing stuff like that.
Anyway, Mike had been gone about a month before I was told that he was in the hospital in Memphis at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital with a thing called Hodgkin’s Disease. “Whew! At least he didn’t have Reye’s Syndrome!”
As it turns out, Hodgkin’s disease is a form of Leukemia. And today, it’s a form that can generally be put into remission. Back then, the odds weren’t quite so good, so they basically threw the chemotherapy kitchen sink at them. Afterwards he had radiation, which meant that even after he got home, it was weeks before I could see my best bud again.
Flash forward 40 years. Now we had buried all four of our grandparents, I’d said goodbye to Dad in 1998, and then held Mom’s hand as she passed just a few months ago. Death and mortality were often on my mind, and I was grappling with existential issues. One of my remaining close Sikeston connections, Dr. Sam, called me to let me know that my dear old friend Mike was in the hospital, and probably would not come home. He thought I should know.
And so I went home one last time. Not counting Mom’s funeral, it had been over ten years since I’d been here. Would Sikeston always be home? And it had been 30 years since I had seen Mike, except a few minutes at the one reunion. Why would I drop what I was doing, cancel my full appointment book to see someone I didn’t really even know anymore? Why would I care?
We all have “Mike’s” in our histories. And when we peel back layer after layer of the onion, we discover that person impacting our lives in ways, over the years, that we’d never really considered.
A cruel word by a classmate, an ass-kicking by a bully, or judgement from a parent or the pulpit seems to linger in our subconscious for decades, We remind ourselves how ridiculous this is looking back, but the effect is profound regardless. That’s why shrinks have patients shout at empty chairs, and say things previously left unsaid, but apparently helpful to finally get out.
Likewise, good experiences and loving words affect us as well. I don’t think this gets nearly enough attention. Mike was a good friend, and a wonderful person. We went different directions at college time, and we fell into vastly different crowds. Years later, Mike shared some tears and heartfelt regret over some of the things that happened during those years. I would grovel for not including him as a groomsman when I got married. I hadn’t seen him in years, and I honestly forgot about him. When we open up and share honestly, it seems to encourage others to come clean also. He had lots of regrets.
I have plenty too.
But, “back in the day,” Mike and I had so much fun, and so many good times. We told each other everything. My first steady girlfriend was his girlfriend’s best friend. (I later tried to date his wife’s sister Dolly, but he thought it was a terrible idea, because she was a “good girl,” and I was a dog). We played tennis and worked out together. We were in band together (with Paul and Kim and many of my friends). We partied together, SEMO style, and navigated together to all the “farm parties,” in some random barn, or “back 40.” I vividly remember listening to Willie Nelson, The Marshall Tucker Band, Bob Seger, and Rush, as we drove down the blacktop country roads in my Cutlass T-Top. One time we got lost, and stopped in the middle of the road, with 10 foot corn on both sides, when a giant irrigation rig rolled out and dumped about a hundred gallons of water into the open car, completely drenching us, and filling my floorboards.
And then there was the time I was riding shotgun in Mike’s beloved, yellow Mustang Fastback as he drove us one Summer afternoon to the movie theater. We were laughing so hard that he wasn’t paying attention, and ran that stop-sign. I saw the sign, and the oncoming car from the side street. Screaming “Mike!” I loosened my seat-belt and jumped into his lap. The impact destroyed the entire passenger side, and it’s door rested against the center console. Although I look back and chuckle about it, Mike never could. He had put his best friend in danger. And he loved that car. No really, he loved that car.
I suppose this is all part of the “human condition.’ So much of who we are, what we become is from our histories with those in our life at the time. I am thankful that I knew Mike, and that he was my friend.
Why do we find ourselves “close” with certain people anyway? How do we, just instinctively become brothers with a few of them, but just acquaintances with others? Is it God’s providence, or just the way things just turned out? I don’t know.
Today is Mike Gimlin’s birthday, and I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately.
What I do know is that I’m so glad I got that call before Mike died. We held hands and laughed until we cried about the old times. So many things I can’t share here, but suffice it to say, we lived lots of our young lives together. I apologized again for not asking him to be in my wedding. I felt guilty that all of my old friends had embraced him, but I wasn’t around. Paul, Andy, Chuck, everyone but me. I was so happy that at least they had been there. As he dosed off, I looked at the medical record sitting on the counter. The chemotherapy and radiation from decades ago had damaged his kidneys, and everything else was now also shutting down. He opened his eyes again and just started talking again, as if we hadn’t paused the conversation for 10 minutes. Mike turned his head and asked what I had brought in, probably hoping it was brownies or something. “It’s my bible, Mike. Would you like me to read to you?”
“Yes,” he whispered, “Yes, I would.”
I turned to what I had previously selected, the story of David slaying the giant Goliath. And that “All things are possible through Christ, who strengthens me.” And there I was, holding my friend’s hand, reading scripture to him, when Mike’s wife Denise, and her “good” sister Dolly walked in. Not really sure why I think that’s funny, but I do.
I hugged Mike, as he lay there, knowing this was his deathbed. As I turned back to wave from the doorway, I turned to see tears streaming down his cheeks. I went back for a final embrace. “Thanks for such good memories. I will see you again, good friend.”
Look back over time. How many “Mike’s” have changed you? They were there to laugh with for many good times, and to lean on through some bad ones. We’re quick to blame our rotten-ness on rotten people who we’ve chosen to let darken us. Perhaps its time to remember the good people in our formation. Thank them for being such a good person when you needed one. They’re the standard we compare the others to. Call someone today that you haven’t thought about for years, and thank them for good memories. If they’re gone, thank them when you pray. I’ll bet they appreciate it, either way. Much Love.