This is a hard week. It’s been a hard few months, bookended within a hard year. Just hard. I turn fifty-five this week. It’s been hard for me. It’s not the number…it’s the regrets.
I hate my birthday. I think I always have. There are reasons why and I won’t go into them here. But by the time I was thirty, I stopped celebrating my birthday at all. I just chose to go to work or school and act like it was just another day, until it finally became just another day.
But this week is hard. Harder than usual. In the midst of my usual self-assessment and subsequent sadness over all that should have been, might have been, and probably never will be, I’m also now forced to begin the grieving process for one of the dearest friends I have ever had.
My friend Rick has terminal cancer. I can’t even look at the words as I type them. I can’t accept this and I can’t believe it. Rick has been my friend for almost thirty years now. He was a Christian musician and I began as just a fan, met him almost by accident, and we became friends. I am the oldest in my family, so I never had a big brother. But I had Rick.
I am watching him fight bravely. Fight the disease and fight the prognosis, and fight the sadness and the unrelenting assault of the illness. Cancer doesn’t have a game plan. It has no time limits. It can move slowly or invade like a lightning strike. It doesn’t care. It’s just a bunch of unfeeling cells with only one thing programmed into its code.
My friend is doing his best to refuse surrender. He will find ways to make me laugh when I call. He’ll joke about his plight. He’s good at this…good enough that I can’t tell if he’s just being brave for everyone else, or if he’s really this hopeful. Like maybe he knows something we don’t. Like they found a cure and it’s being rolled out thirteen days from now and he is number three on the list and everything is secretly going to be just fine. Like he’s just holding this card close to his chest until a day or so beforehand and then he’ll tell us all, and we’ll go have dinner together and celebrate.
I know none of this is true but Rick’s humor and ease makes me wish, and believe just a little. I’m in denial. I know it. But I can’t bring myself to accepting this. I can’t grasp a world without Rick Elias and the music, and the conversations, and the Christmas Party, and the Superbowl commentary. (Rick’s father-in-law was an NFL coach and his wife can take over a football viewing party like no other woman)
There is a certain self-satisfaction with being a fan of someone who exists slightly on the outside of a genre. It’s like a badge of honor that tells the world that your tastes are a little more discriminating. My musical tastes were always this way. My record collection was, for the most part, made up of names you know, but you don’t know any of their stuff. I reveled in converting my friends to the sounds of Southside Johnny, Little Steven, Willy Deville…and Rick Elias.
Usually the first response was “That’s Christian music? That’s way too good to be Christian music.”
And it was. It was because, for the last twenty years or so, especially since the plague of “praise and worship” took over everything on the airwaves, Christian music has been horrible. Horrible like “I’d rather hear the “Brady-Kids-singing” horrible. The last record I cared about was Rick’s “Job” album and before that, “The Jesus Record” which was Rich Mullins’ posthumous masterpiece. I stopped listening to the genre…then I stopped caring about it. That’s sad. And that’s why we needed Rick in the first place.
This is weighing on me as I have dealt with this terrible illness that my friend has and with the inevitable goodbye, and with the gaping hole in my heart, and with the snapshots of all the moments we’ve shared. I can’t stop the movie that plays in my soul, and I don’t want to. But sometimes watching it hurts even more.
Three weeks ago I wrote him a letter. I debated sending it because I was afraid it was sounding like I was eulogizing my friend before he was gone. Like I was giving up. But I wanted…I desperately needed, to know that he heard my words sooner, not later. I wanted to be certain that he knew I loved him. That I was honored by his friendship. That I bore witness to this life of his. That someone stood up and said “I see you.” That he knew that others knew he was here.
That’s really the point of this piece today. Because Rick is facing something that ultimately we all face, and for me it has only served to emphasize the internal wrestling I’ve been experiencing for over a year now. I’m getting older. Certainly not old, but I’m older. And I wonder, as fifty-five approaches in a few days, did anyone know I was here?
My daughter knows, of course. A few of my friends I suppose. But otherwise I wonder about the value of the life I’ve led so far. If I was somehow undone from history, what would the world look like?
I’ve walked most of this walk of mine alone. That’s simply a fact. I didn’t grow up in a home where I was valued very much and I learned early on to just make my own way. That’s great for survival, but in the long term, it doesn’t lend itself to the feeling that somehow, someone in the crowd of six billion humans saw you. I’m questioning this now as I turn fifty-five, and as my friend faces eternity. Who saw me? Who saw Rick?
I wrote him that long letter and sent it last week, after a few days of debating it in my heart. I hoped he would understand what I was saying, and what I was not. I wanted him to know that I saw him. That I see the footprints of his life and his work and some of those prints are on the sacred ground of my own heart. I saw the man he is and the dad he is and the husband he is and the Christian he is. I’ve seen the good and the bad and the in-between. And I stand as a witness to a life well lived. A job well done. A body of work that is superior to many who have achieved more fame, on far less talent.
He’s been my friend. My friend when I was flying high and when I crashed on his couch. My friend when we disagreed, sometimes vehemently, and my friend when we were in complete unity. He read my writing and laughed at my jokes. He’d send me an email with a new song inside. “Don’t share this yet, but what do you think?” or he’d call me and ask me to come over and just hang out, because he knew I was a new divorcee, and I was his friend, and his friend was hurting.
I am angry with myself that I have not learned this lesson already by now. This lesson of telling people you love them while there is plenty of time for them to accept it, and process it, and live in the truth of it, and let it inspire them. Rick and I –thankfully—kept short accounts. Twice I remember us disagreeing so passionately that we stopped speaking. In both cases the silence ended fairly soon and we were sorry it happened at all.
My friend’s life and death battle has taught me, reminded me really, that nothing is forever and nothing should be taken for granted. If you love someone…tell them. Whether you love them as a friend or romantically or whatever, tell them. Tell them what they've meant to you, and why. Tell them how bland and boring life would be without them. Tell them what they've added to your life. Give examples. Remember moments. Thank them for making your life better. Hold on tightly. Laugh at yourselves. Tell them you love them. Make sure they know. Make sure they know how invaluable their life was to yours. How flavorless your banquet would have been without the dish they brought. Go ahead and cry. It's in those tears, and in that brokenness that the love you hold for them can escape the bonds of safety and propriety, and you can feel it in all its depth.
Say it. Go ahead and SAY IT! I love you, my dear friend. You have meant more to me than all these words of mine can ever express. You have brought me laughter, tears, joy, depth, anger, connection, hope, despair, a glimpse of the Holy, the faint scent of the profane, and the soft flutter of the occasional angel wing. The steps we took together covered more ground than all my steps alone ever could.
Hold nothing back. Because ultimately, in this crowded world of six billion people, it’s hard to be seen. Hard to be recognized. Hard to feel that someone, anyone, can pick your face out of the maddening crowd.
Friends are that for each other. The witness to the life each other has led and the chronicler of the victories and defeats and the ground gained and lost. I am determined, more than ever now, to not let even one of my friends go through this life without them hearing me tell them I love them. And why. And what that love has done in this hard heart of mine.
Maybe in that way, this long goodbye I am saying to my dear friend Rick, will have meaning and purpose that extends beyond his life, and into the concentric circles where his life and mine have overlapped.
That, and the wonderful music he has bestowed on us all, will keep him fresh in my heart, painful as it will be, until I see him again.
Tell them you love them…
* If you would like to help my friend Rick and his family please consider giving here:
Go Fund Me for Rick Elias
Go Fund Me for Rick Elias