Dave and I were not alone on our voyage. Frequently, we heard the voices of family and friends, some alive, some long gone. One night I sat at the helm with my girlfriend, Diane. It was then that I recorded this story.
My neighbor Diane’s inoperable brain tumor and unscheduled seizures made her an oddity in middle school. My elementary days of clearing aside desks and chairs as she fell, guarding that she didn’t swallow her tongue, and reassuring substitute teachers that this was normal behavior had passed. We had drifted apart. But, there was no one else around during those early summer days of 1971 and my head filled—as it always did—with new games for us to play in her built-in swimming pool, my second summertime home. So, I phoned.
Unexpectedly, Diane said I couldn’t come over. I was no longer invited to their home. When pressed, she passed the phone to her mother. Kindly, her mother explained, “You girls haven’t played together all winter. So, your interest in coming over now seems more about the pool than about being with Diane.”
In a rush I remembered I had acted badly last summer. Frustrated by Diane’s increasing slowness, I twisted her name into ugly playground sayings. At least once, Diane’s older sister overheard and stormed into the house shouting, “Mah-om!”
I sat uncomfortably with the truth. I had bullied a mentally handicapped girl, a friend. Worse, I was more interested in the pool than in Diane.
How I wondered could her mother be kind? Did she know that her daughter had grown different from the other kids? Was she shooing me along to go be normal? The thought of leaving our friendship sickened me. I knew the truth: I was Diane’s last ordinary friend. If I abandoned Diane, I would be responsible for her lifetime of loneliness.
Unable to sort the layers of my emotions, I simply told my mother I was banned from Diane’s. She said she knew. “No one blames you for not being Diane’s friend,” my mother volunteered. “No one is angry.”
There it was again—kindness in the face of meanness. In that moment, I didn’t understand the world. I knew right from wrong and kindness as a response to my wrong-doing made no sense. I was at a loss for how to behave. Eventually, for lack of a different option, I filled that summer (and all my summers to come) with other pursuits.
Four decades later, memories of Diane bubble to the surface and I wrestle anew with feelings of guilt. Like a commodity, I seek to trade guilt for someone else’s pain thinking, “If I feel badly enough about what I did perhaps you will hurt less.” Except after so many years there is no one’s pain to relieve save for my own. This is when I make my discovery; I have hurt for Diane since childhood. Sadness floods me. I remember a vibrant friend with a quick smile, generous heart, and devilish creativity. My dedication to our friendship was bought through the fare and equal trade of childhood laughter. We were the same. Then we were different. The pain is imprinted on my heart.
Now, at the age of the adults of my youth, I understand our shared loss. Their understanding is no longer a mystery. Sadness compels kindness.