High school was a phenomenal time in my life. It shaped me. It represented the four years of great and rapid evolution from childhood to adulthood, with all the wonders that such a transformation entails — an opening to the world, responsibility, sex and love, poetry. I remember my classmates and my teachers, almost every one of them. Each day was a new challenge and I was happy. I liked the silly imposed discipline rules, the books I read and the solving of advanced math problems as much as I liked cutting class, wandering through the streets, smoking and drinking. I developed — we all, youths of my class, developed — a certain cynical perception of reality that served me well later on, not necessarily because it was always right, but because it kept me vigilant.
At the end of May I will travel to Bucharest to celebrate my 50th high school reunion. I have the feeling that I will blog about it after my visit. Until then, I can only dream and try to imagine how it will be.
It’s puzzling that fifty years have gone by — a full half-century, or 18,250 days, if one ignores the leap years and the fact that our reunion will not necessarily fall on the exact date of our graduation. Young people can understand the passing of time, but not feel it intrinsically. Those of us who survived it, don’t understand it at all, and can only say, wow, high school happened yesterday! Equally astonishing is that it has been 30 years since the Romanian Revolution. In school I was convinced the old communist regime in Romania would last forever.
The reunion schedule includes a visit to the high school — an imposing, classical style building proudly standing in the middle of Bucharest — and a dinner. How many will show up is anybody’s guess. One thing I know for sure: those of us no longer on this earth will be missed.
Of those, there is one man in particular whose absence I will feel very deeply. He was a wonderful friend I lost seven years ago to cancer. I was tempted to call him ‘my best childhood friend,’ but it’s wrong to rank friendships. I am lucky to have grown up with many friends who influenced my life and at different times, some ebbed closer to me than others. I wrote about some of them in my earlier blogs, and called them my brothers. This man was my brother also, in a different way, and I have hesitated to write about him until now, because it is painful.
He was a tall, slender guy with handsome features, the eyes of a doe and a droopy, brown mustache. Well, I considered him handsome, and judging by the large number of girls interested in him, so did others. What I remember best was his presence. He always spoke with a self-assurance that was rejuvenating. His ideas were not as impressive in depth or content, as they were in his wit and his passion. He was smart and funny and he possessed so much thirst for life that he skipped over details. He was generous. He was kind, and if you knew him the way I did, in spite of his raucous stance, you knew he had the heart of a teddy bear.
In high school, for a short while, we loved the same girl and that introduced a novel concept into my friendship towards him — jealousy. We overcame it (he got the girl!).
Later, as young men, we went on our most memorable trips together. We hiked the Southern Carpathians from Sinaia to Râmnicu Vâlcea (for those who don’t know Romania, that trek is not for amateurs), and then we traveled through Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, an amazing feat in those times and under those political circumstances.
I left for the US. He stayed. He had a good life in Romania, with a beautiful and loving wife and a wonderful daughter. Those were hard and challenging times as well. As an engineer he spent a lot of time on major construction sites, working long hours under difficult conditions. His responsibilities grew and he became more and more dedicated to his profession, an essential part of his success being his ability to relate to people. To all people. Those working for him loved him. Those he worked for loved him also. Often the evenings were spent with coworkers at the local pub, drinking and smoking, and it’s easy for me to imagine that with his larger than life, gregarious personality, he did drink more and smoked more than others.
After the regime changed in Romania, he and his family visited us in the United States several times. We celebrated New Year 2000 together. We went on a cruise to the Caribbean. Another time, my wife, my children and I joined him and his family on a tour of northeastern Romania. He was a partner at a construction firm, and arranged through his work for a van and driver. True to his name, the driver, Mr. Iota, was a diminutive man, quite a bit older than us, and a big soccer fan. Our trip coincided with the World Cup that year, and every time we arrived at a hotel during a soccer match when the Romanian team was playing, we would gather in one room, eat, drink, joke and argue, while the match would unfold on television. Mr. Iota sat to the side, passionately watching the game, and from time to time half rising to his feet bent forward and silently lifting both arms above his head, in a gesture of enthusiasm or despair. I guessed he didn’t stand fully upright and didn’t vocalize, out of a sense of humility.
Then my friend’s disease struck. It had been hard to diagnose and even harder to fight. I visited him several months before he died, and witnessed firsthand his physical pain and mental agony. He couldn’t talk any longer, but his eyes did, and while his end was near, he was still fighting. His wife and daughter were there, two distressed, shattered figures. This blog is not the place to dwell on his suffering, so I will not describe it here.
Yes, I miss my friend every day, and I will miss him more at our reunion. Most of us will. He was the soul of our party. And I can’t help it but see in his untimely end those candles that burn down faster than others because of the intensity of the flame, or Mr. Iota’s stifled gestures when he jumped to his feet and raised his arms, yet not quite fully.
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