The Meaning of Years

One of my old friend’s names is a synonym for king. I have known him since we were maybe eight, when his mother placed him in my mom’s Cub Scout den. We were all rascals, but he and I were fatherless and poor. Due to the authority of his size, and what would turn out to be an innate sense of responsibility, he took on the role of older brother at times. He was the first of us to get a real job, a car, a girlfriend, booze. He looked out for us, socially, and helped me get a job one step above my work as a dishwasher. He may have taken me to the bus station to go to the army, which was the hardest departure of my life. I know he picked me up after basic training, which was my most important return.

But we all had our own paths. Mine rarely ran back to our region, and his was entirely there, with his mom, grandma, and siblings. He rose into management as a teenager and continues to work in the same industry after 40 years.

He asked me to be his best man. I was so happy he had found his wife and partner that I wept during the vows. I saw them together again maybe only once or twice, over many years, because I was never around. (I missed the early life of their daughter for the same reason.) Besides, like any marriage, his had its ups and downs. If I was in town, he always chose to come out. But they stayed together for…forever, 34 years. It has been a comfort my entire adult life to know they were there, as the community I once knew has diminished.

For decades he and I spoke infrequently on the phone. Since smartphones, we have texted a little more often. Happy day, you big bastard, I text on Thanksgiving. You too, douchebag, he replies.

After a fierce, brief struggle with cancer, his wife died this week. I see nothing ennobling in pain like that, though she fought bravely, until her body could no longer do so, and he was by her side until even he was exhausted. Many say, under these circumstances, it is a blessing when the suffering is over, but she was too young. My friend asked me to be a pallbearer, which I was honored to do. Her grave is not far from my mother’s family, in the town cemetery.

My friend wonders how he will go on. Those of us who know him know that he will go on as he always has, by working hard and taking care of other people—his grown daughter, his family, his employees, his dog. He will mow half the grass and knock off because it is five o’clock somewhere. He will fish and drive around in whatever car is the most-recent successor to that old Impala we called The Super Chief. He will eat and cuss and laugh and continue to find people and activities to love. He will, I hope, call me.

And when Whatever That Invests Us with our tokens of wealth toodles out to the long line of us all waiting to get through to The Big Beyond, it will be no surprise when It goes directly up to him, clasps his hand warmly, and says, Well done, my good and faithful servant.

This, I believe, is one meaning of years.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.