They laid John Studwell to rest today. They held his funeral at St. Patrick’s Church in Seneca Falls, NY, just a few steps from where John and I shared a kindergarten class. John was one of my first friends. We got along well with each other, and we played together with the rest of our class. Years later, they took down the school’s jungle gym for being too unsafe. And yet, my class climbed all over it, and had a lot of fun.
On the first day of first grade, I discovered two sad truths. One was that for the rest of my schooling, I would have to put up with the full-length school days, as opposed to the half days that I’d enjoyed in kindergarten. The other was that John was no longer in my class, and was now going to another school in Seneca Falls. I came home that day very dejected.
I did see John again a few years later. In 1983, John and his team pitched against my team, and struck out everyone. Except me. I somehow got a base on balls my first time up. The second time I came to bat, I angled my foot so that I would get hit by his pitch. Despite the look from John that I may have done that on purpose (yes, you were right, John), I got on base again, to the astonishment of my teammates. When others asked how I had done so well against him, I smiled and said, “I know him.”
In October of 1983, my father got a job in North Carolina, and my family moved to the very different environment of the Southeast United States. And in so doing, the friends and loved ones that I’d had in New York became crystalised in my memory. They did, and still do mean the world to me. The power of shared experiences in our youth, and the people that I felt had been taken from me. In 1991, I went back to Seneca Falls for my former classmates’ high school graduation. My grandfather, who also played a large part in my outlook on my life, drove me to the graduation. It was wonderful to see them all, as young adults. I still consider that day one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life, up there with photographing Johnny Cash, and marrying my wife.
Over time, the internet has allowed me to continue reconnecting with my friends from long ago. I had found John online, and I believe I may have written to him at least once. Yes, it is a bit strange to reach out to someone after all that time. But I was happy to see that he was doing well, even if I wasn’t talking to him again on a regular basis. There was time enough to talk to you him again, someday. Someday, someday….
This past Sunday, I logged into Facebook, and John’s obituary was the first thing I saw. It had been posted on a Seneca Falls news website that he and I both subscribed to. A flood of emptiness filled my head and hands. When you become acquainted with someone at an early age, you share your hopes for life and its possible experiences. You assume that they will grow with you, for however long that you continue to grow and change. You never plan that their light may flicker before your own. For years, I had been searching for David Pasquale, my best friend throughout Catholic school. I wanted to see how he was doing, what had become of his own dreams. Last month, I discovered that he died in 1993, in a motorcycle accident. As I ponder all of this, the childhood I knew, and the people I shared those experiences with seem farther away than ever.
Loss is a loose stone that can quickly overwhelm you, and make it hard to walk away from. During my short time on this planet, I have known that feeling all too well, as have many others. Two different sets of best friends, several family members, and others that I cared about. My grandfather, whose voice I still hear in my head, has been gone from here for 14 years. And I still miss him every day of my life. Looking back, I realize that some of my own interest in photography came from looking at the photographs that my grandparents had left behind, and recognizing the power of those images in the face of that loss. I understand that permenance is a state of mind. I acknowledge it, and allow it to make me stronger. But it is not always easy, at any age. All it takes some days is a casual thought, a memory. The sound or image of someone no longer with us. I may smile at you, but the pain is never too far behind my eyes.
However, time can be deceptive after someone passes away. When the shock of loss has subsided, we are left with not how someone died, but how they lived. The time that they spent with us. The laughs, the stories, even the tears. And that does not change. Those people stay with us because they were a part our lives, our experiences. Whether they are next door, hundreds of miles away, our in a place that we will all visit someday, they are still with us. And will continue to be. For if we still speak their name, write their name on paper (or the internet), and celebrate their lives with us, no one has ever truly left. Their lives carry on, as do ours.
To John Studwell, and David Pasquale, I say hello again, and safe travels. You may have left this place, but you have not left me. To all my friends and loved ones, wherever you are, hello. Your memories fill my head and hands in ways you may never know, and may you all travel on, safely. Wherever you are.
February 25, 2014