This morning I found out from my father that a childhood friend of mine, Charles, is dead. I have searched the Internet and cannot find an obituary for information on what happened, only that he died in 2008, at 28 years old. This is disheartening, for apparent reasons. My father found out about Charles’ death from an obituary for one of his friends, an older man who lived a full life, which stated he had been preceded in death by his grandson, Charles. Charles was my friend for only a short time in middle school, so I was kind of surprised when I broke down this morning over his death.
I took a moment to think through why I was so affected by this. Charles was not a native to our little town; I am not sure when he moved in. I met Charles in seventh grade, in middle school. Middle school is, to put it mildly, a weird time, where children become “tweens” and try to figure out who they (and everyone else) are. In elementary school, I made good grades, I liked to draw, and I ran fast; that was enough. In middle school, however, since my dad was the Principal, teachers and students were more aware of me, and more was expected. I was a hyperactive extrovert, and by seventh grade, I had been paddled 30+ times, mostly for talking and walking around in class.
That’s how Charles and I initially met and bonded; we were a lot alike in that regard.
Charles didn’t play by the rules. He was a happy kid, but kind of an outlier: smart, but not a geek; athletic, but not an athlete; gregarious, but not particularly popular. In this regard, he was somewhat enigmatic. He was, in a word, unfazed. Charles showed me another way: a way to straddle those stupid cliques, to be friendly with the popular kids and the freaks, the jocks and the geeks, and onward, and et cetera.
What I – and, I would suspect, most who knew him then – first remember about Charles is his love for music, and more specifically, hard rock and metal. He was perpetually drumming his fingers on his desk, his chair, whatever, rocking out to some imaginary band in his head. He introduced me to Guns-n-Roses, Metallica, and his favorite, Ozzy Osbourne; but more importantly, Charles introduced me to a massive back catalog of rock music that came some two decades before, of which, until that time, I had been completely unaware. It was to this music I glommed onto in middle school, and it is to this music – some two decades later – I still return when I need to feel like myself again.
Charles was the first person I witnessed up close playing the electric guitar. He was an admittedly amateur guitarist, but, dude – he could make it scream, wail and growl. We rocked out. I remember rocking out at his swimming pool with a tape player on a table blasting while we head-banged and cannon-balled and laughed like idiots: a real-life Beavis and Butthead.
I honestly cannot exaggerate how much music changed my life. It combines science and art, technique and emotion, math and literature, physics and prose – and, I suppose to 12-year old me, it provided an identity. I got part-time jobs and saved up money for the sole purpose of buying these things called “compact discs” – Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Pink Floyd, the Doors, the Rolling Stones, et cetera; but mostly, I bought Led Zeppelin. I practically memorized their albums and was the only kid in eighth grade wearing Led Zeppelin t-shirts. I thought I was freakin’ awesome. If I listen to classic rock today, it’s a bit more subdued and/or nuanced, but I still have some of those CDs in my stereo cabinet, and some of those t-shirts in my closet.
In eighth grade, my father became Principal at another school, and perhaps correlation does not prove causation, but I was never paddled in eighth grade. Also in eighth grade – just like that – my best friend, Charles, moved to a town forty-five minutes away. A new beginning.
I have wondered about Charles’ life and what made his outlook so different; he was quiet on many of the details of his background. All I really know is his mother had started dating again, and that her dating life was fast-paced; I knew – even in middle school – not to ask any further. Perhaps he had seen too much too early. We fell out of contact quickly, and I wondered what happened to him in high school and beyond. I know he took up playing the cello, but that is it. I didn’t interact with Charles during our high school years, where issues become more punctuated. I saw him once more near the end of high school when my family was out for a Friday night movie; he waited our table at Chili’s Restaurant. We talked for a bit, but of course, it wasn’t the same. It never is. It never will be.
Maybe those most full of life are more susceptible to death. Today, faced with his death, I am trying – hard – not to speculate any more than I already have on the details. I want to remember him full of life, as he was then; and I am grateful to God for his presence in my life, as he helped make the world more enjoyable and a bit more accessible.
“You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”
- Khalil Gibran