The phone rang. I love caller ID. If we’re all honest to a fault, we like having it. If it’s not a number I have in my contacts list and it’s after work hours, I can ignore it. During the workday, I answer every call I can. You never know when someone on the other end is going buy a few trees.
It’s about 8:00 in the evening and Allen’s name shows up on my phone. He was in my wedding a hundred years ago. I swipe the little green icon.
“Hey son. Wha’chew up to?”
With some folks I almost always slide off into my never-forgotten Georgia twang. Especially with Allen, because I know what I’m gonna get on the other end of the phone.
“Hey boy. You got . . . garble-hiss-blah . . . for me to . . . dead-spot-garble-garble . . . I just thought you . . . long-hiss-brrrrr-garble . . .”
“Allen. I ain’t getting what you’re saying. Bad signal.”
“More-garble-da-blink-dee-do . . . did you know . . .wonk-duh-huh-hiss-garble.”
Then it went silent. I don’t why I kept talking. Not much chance he was hearing me. “Think I just lost you. Call me back.”
Allen makes most of his calls while he’s driving. He has time to think of stuff that he’s been meaning to tell me. He doesn’t know how to look at his phone and know whether or not he’s got any signal down some backroad traveling home from fishing at Lake Wedowee, Alabama. He’s barely gotten out of the flip phone phase of life.
Sidebar. I happened to mention Lake Wedowee to a fella just yesterday. He said, “I thought it was WEE-dough-wee. I never knew it was pronounced Wuh-DOW-wee.”
Some folks don’t get out much.
Anyway. About an hour later, Allen called back. He was at home with his phone plugged up to the charger.
“I got you now, son. Can you hear me any better?”
“Much better. Wha’chew got on ya’mind.” More twang.
For about thirty minutes we talked about an old friend who was going through some hard times. I won’t get into the details of another person’s heartache. The details don’t really matter. The point is that life can hand out some pretty raw deals to some of the nicest people on the planet. Nice is not a free pass on misery.
The thing that really got me was the question Allen asked before he told me the story. “Have you been keeping up with so-and-so lately?”
And the painful truth is, I had not.
“Well don’t feel bad,” Allen said. “I hadn’t been keeping up like I ought to. You know how it is. You hear things. You got an idea that somebody is going through a tough time. You intend to call but you don’t seem to get around to it until you’re embarrassed to call because it’s been so long.”
I know all too well how that goes.
“H#!!, son. I called anyway, and I’m glad I did. Let me tell ya what’s going on.”
Over the course of the conversation, we talked about several friends and what they’ve got going on in their lives. These are folks we’ve known for nearly 50 years. We were college kids together on a small campus. We shared dorm rooms and library desks and ballgames and picnics and all-night cram sessions. We stood up at weddings together and tied cans to bumpers and put sardines on top of the engine block.
By all rights and experiences, we were bonded together tighter than Elmer’s Glue.
But it doesn’t take long for the drifting currents of life to take effect. Jobs in new towns. New acquaintances and if you’re lucky a few new friends.
At first you stay in touch with the old bunch. You say to yourself that you’re not going to let it be like it was in high school. You promise yourself that you’re going to do better this round. And for a while you keep up with a few of them.
But the calls come fewer and farther between. You travel through some town where you know your old friend lives. You call him up. You talk about meeting up for supper, but he can’t get away and you have to hit the road later that evening. It just doesn’t work out. Nobody’s fault.
Here’s the thing. Old friends are forever. You know it’s true. Whether it’s been two years or twenty, with one phone call, a couple of old friends can pick back up where they left off because there’s this mysterious kinship that is unbreakable. It transcends every distance and every disappointment and every missed opportunity.
I’ve told my kids for years, since they were little, that they need each other. Two of them got in a scrap one time, kicking and fussing. They were big enough to know better, but not so big I couldn’t grab them up off the floor, one in each hand.
I made them look each other in the eye. “Look here. You’re gonna have a lot of disagreements in your life. You’re gonna think that your friends are more important than your brother or sister. But it ain’t so. You better learn to be friends now, because one of these days you two might just be the only friends you have. And you’re gonna need each other when you can’t count on anybody else.”
It was a good sermon. I’ve had to preach it several times.
The crazy thing about good friends is that both the hurt and the wonder carry equal weight. The wounds of a friend, brother, or sister, cut deep. When that happens, if you’re not careful the bitterness can turn to sadness, and the sadness to indifference. And a steady diet of indifference is a miserable way to spend a life.
The challenge is to feed the wonder. I’m too dadburn old to let life get in the way of what could be. Even when there’s nothing dramatic and painful in a friendship. Maybe just a long silence is all that’s at stake. There is still more to be gained than to be lost.
So, I picked up the phone and dialed the number. An old friend answered. Still a familiar voice. I forgot to rehearse what I might say.
“I hear your life has been turned upside down lately. Allen called. I just wanted to call to tell you I’m so sorry to hear about your troubles.”
The voice on the other end said, “It’s good to hear your voice. Life has been no bed of roses for you either.”
We talked for nearly an hour. Life. Death. Marriage. Faith. Denial. Fear. Future. Wonder. It was all in there. 48 years of it. There was a lot of catching up to do. A lot of lost ground to cover.
I hung up the phone and leaned back in my chair. As I closed my eyes, trying to soak it all in, one thing stood out.
I should have made that call a long time ago.