Greatness: Biography (Part I)

There’s a very ancient custom (tradition, superstition, whatever you wish to call it), that orphans and foundlings must be treated with a special dignity. The story goes (or went, if you will) that the gods, whatever their names, have a surprising predilection for going disguised as men, and they certainly tend to get about a bit, and so you never quite know whether the adopted baby’s biological father is, in fact, biological. If you get my drift….

(Yes, I’ve been reading some Pratchett recently, for those who’ve read enough of his stuff to recognize the influence there….)

Ack. There’s something I want to write, something I need to say, and I’m quite sure that I’m not up to the task of saying it. I felt this way, several years ago, when I had to give a toast at his wedding…..

Listen, I have a lot to say about Human Greatness, and this glorious world crafted by God for the sake of humanity, and how even the bad comes out to good, in the end….

But it hurts when it’s someone you know, y’know? It’s painful and it’s scary and it’s really, really, really, bitterly unfair. And you want to scream and you want to cry at the same time. That’s what it’s like when Life happens. A baby is born crying, and for good reason.

(That last sentence is just about the most cynical line I’ve ever written….)

Look, Life is like this: it’s Man-made. It seems like a good idea, it mostly works, all the pieces fit together, and those who know how it works can really get it to do some amazing things. And other people have an astonishing tendency to just push the buttons, without really reading the manual, and it just works for them. They’ve got a knack. But with anything Man-made, you’re going to have some people who, no matter how they try, just can’t quite understand what’s going on at all….

I imagine that’s what the world looks like to angels. It’s fascinating. It’s beautiful. It’s just this overwhelming experience, full of boundless possibilities. But when you get down to the joints, down to the bendy parts, it’s gritty, and it breaks down just when you really need it to go….

I heard this morning that one of my oldest friends (or, in fact, one of my youngest friends, depending how you’re counting) has cancer. That’s the impetus for a thousand blog posts, I suppose. I don’t care. Let me join in the caterwauling. I need to talk about him.

I’ve known Josh for as long as I’ve been me, for any but the most general definition of “me.” I met him when I was six, in Claremore, among that great cloud of my-age friends that I stumbled upon when my family moved there. By the time I was seven, at the latest, he was my best friend.

His special genius was singing….

No, that’s not true. His special genius was smiling. He had so much fun, whatever we were doing. We used to laugh together at anything. Y’know how little kids play together? How they dream up an idea and together they go off into some other universe and just…play? Josh and I used to play for hours. I don’t remember really playing before I met him (but, then, I don’t remember much before I was six), and I don’t really remember playing after then, except with him (or on my own).

We used to talk about starting a singing group. Josh and me, and the rest of that cloud of my-age friends there at the Church of Christ on Blue Starr Drive. Yeah, me. Yeah, singing. Josh was that convincing….

The last time I saw Josh, he was smiling. Every time I can remember, he’s been smiling. And not because things were going great, when I happened to see him. He’s always been able to end up smiling, though, no matter what was going on…. To see something in the world around him, the world that is just beating and bruising and bewildering him — to see something in all that to laugh about, at least when he’s around friends.

I imagine that’s what the world looks like to angels. Life has not been nice to Josh. I missed all the pain, too. I haven’t been anywhere near him for any of it. It’s easy to feel guilty about that. He was my best friend when we were kids, without a care in the world, running through grassy pastures, pestering our siblings….

I moved to Kansas just months before everything went wrong with his parents.

Six years later, senior year in high school, I met up with him again. He came to live with us for a little while, and I got to know him again. Still smiling, still laughing, still this incredible boy. I was there when he met Julie. I made a very clumsy and (in its way) fairly rude rendition of his role in my life, by way of a toast at his wedding. I’m very concerned, writing this now, that I didn’t learn a thing from that experience….

Because life hasn’t worked right, for Josh. He’s so enthusiastic, so determined, so alive — so much more so than everyone I know — and for every bit of force Josh has poured into Life, Life has pushed back with equal and opposite, as it were.

He’s had an amazing life, already….

He made it on his own, when he needed to taste independence. He had a hard time of it, because he was young and, after all, making it on your own is a hard business. But he’s managed it more than once.

He had a beautiful and brilliant wife. I know how proud he is of that. Even if only for a while, that was an accomplishment. He’s got two beautiful sons.

He could sing like an angel. I tried a dozen times to come up with another way to phrase that, but it’s the best I can do. He could sing like a drunk, at times. He could sing like a troubadour at times. He could sing like anyone in AVB or Acapella, and I’ll fight anyone who’d say otherwise. He sang with passion, because he loved to sing. That he understood. Even when nothing else in the world made sense, when the Devil cheated and even God seemed to be up to something, music was straight and true. I remember how he poured all of himself into singing a single song….

He always wanted to sing for AVB or Acapella. That’s why I mentioned them up there. Elementary through high school, I remember how cool he always thought that would be. I imagine it would rank as one of his life goals, no doubt.

I found out this morning that Josh has cancer on his vocal chords. I guess they’re checking to see if it’s elsewhere, and to see what else can be done (or needs to be done), but, really, the whole story of Josh’s life is right there. He’s got cancer on his vocal chords.

It’s not fair.

Too often, when I think about Josh, I want to cry. I think of him as this big goofy smile, I think about all the happiness he has brought into my life, and when I think about how much pain has been in his, I want to cry, because life isn’t fair.

But this is too much. It’s like it’s aimed at him. Everything else is just Life, in the big, faceless, heartless manner of it, but this….

This is what I’m talking about. This is how Life is tailor-made to us. This is how God writes us into precisely the one story where we won’t be a bit part. No other promises but that one, it seems.

I hate to write this all, now, not knowing what tomorrow will bring. I am writing this whole post on three short lines of information, a quick note from Mom. So I can’t say whether he’ll be well again. I can’t say what will come of this. I don’t know enough to make predictions, or guesses. I know just enough to absolutely hate it.

I was there at camp, when Josh sang for the talent show every year. I was there the year he found out Tony Brown had been hired by AVB, and Tony promised to mention Josh to them, keep Josh posted. I remember how excited he was, how much fun he had teaching me the bass line to “Keep Looking Up,” by Free Indeed.

I can’t believe how far away he is, now. I wish I could somehow be there for him. This is the third time I’ve felt that way, deep down in my heart, and each time it has been worse.

Say a prayer for him, if you can find it in you. Because he’s got to be scared now. Because he’s got to be angry now. Because it’s just not fair.

“Dear Lord, my Father and my King. Be close to Josh today.”