“So, we’re having a baby,” he said.
My friend told me this while we were eating breakfast in a crowded place. I looked at him and almost dropped my fork.
He started happy crying.
“You’re having a baby?” I said.
He nodded, then cried even harder.
The number one rule of manhood is, you are not supposed to cry. I don’t know where this rule comes from, but I think it’s in the Boy Scout manual somewhere. As men, our fathers were stalwart examples who taught us to be stoics. Like like little John Waynes, minus the hats.
So you can imagine how uncomfortable I was when my friend covered his face with a napkin and sobbed in a public place.
Soon, the waitress came. “Is everything okay, sir?”
I sniffed my nose manfully and said, “Pollen.”
You’d have to know my friend to understand what a big deal this baby is. He has had an uphill battle for most of his life.
For starters, he has a speech impediment, which has always been a challenge. When he gets stressed, he has a hard time making words happen.
We once took a community college class together, epochs ago. I sat beside him in class. Whenever the teacher would call on him, he would look at me and say, “Tell her.”
Thus, I was sort of his mouthpiece. I guess he’d been made fun of too many times to risk speaking in a classroom. As I recall, I made a D in that class.
I always loved his mom. His mother was one of those exceptional kinds of women you read about in “Guideposts” magazines. She gave birth when she was 17, in a home for unwed mothers. Then she lit out on her own and raised her only son in a 22-foot camper.
She worked in a salon by day; she attended GED classes by night. They lived in squalor with a capital S.
In grade school, he dressed in garage-sale clothes that smelled like mothballs, with other people’s initials written on his clothing tags. His diet consisted of spaghetti and Colonial bread.
For yearbook pictures the local church purchased new clothes so he wouldn’t be forever immortalized wearing a hole-ridden T-shirt.
But that is not where his story ends. That is merely the beginning.
Because eventually, his mother earned her college degree, then a nursing degree. And after that, their lives became so wonderful that Robin Leach could have narrated their afternoons.
His mother got a job as a traveling nurse, and if you’ve ever known a traveling nurse, you know what a sweet job this is.
One year they lived in Houston, the next year they were in some little town named Loma Linda, California. They hopped around island resorts, they lived in the Florida Keys. They once lived in Alaska, where my friend learned to catch a salmon on a fly rod for his 15th birthday.
My friend wiped his nose and said, “I wish my mom would have lived to see my baby.”
His mother died from pancreatic cancer in 2009. Her last words were: “I love you so, so, so much.”
The funeral was private. Just family. They played a Patsy Cline tune for her homegoing, which was the song “Crazy” (1961), penned by none other than Willie Nelson.
Which is probably why my friend is such a diehard Willie fan. I should know, we used to play in a band together a hundred years ago, and our professional repertoire consisted of 98 percent Willie songs and 2 percent Skynyrd.
But then, this was back in the days when our youthful lives revolved around $5 pitchers. We played six nights per week, slept four of them, and had a great time from what little I can remember.
Eventually, our band tired of playing bar gigs for faux cowboys in $1800 boots, and we aimed higher. We bought secondhand tuxedos and began playing 50th birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, and—God help me—Florida snowbird conventions.
The snowbird gigs were the most difficult. Imagine playing “Come Fly With Me” for 70 retired brake-pad salesmen who take the dancefloor with 70 gals who have all recently undergone hip surgery. (“Do you play any cha-chas, young man?!”)
After breakfast, we said goodbye. We hugged. We clapped each other’s shoulders hard enough to induce wheezing.
“We should do this again,” we both said.
Even though we know we won’t.
I wandered to my truck and sat for a while in silence, thinking of my greatest memories.
Memories I made playing music with the guys.
My memory of walking down the aisle with a brunette who was generous enough to marry the village idiot.
The memory of this breakfast.
It’s strange. I am not often aware that I am happy. I can remember that I’ve been happy. But only after the fact. I wish it were different, but there you are. Why is it that it’s difficult to see how truly beautiful life is until years later?
Before I left the parking lot, I removed my phone and looked at the photo of my friend’s sonogram again. I thought of how frighteningly short, but how incredibly rich this life is.
And I broke the number one rule of manhood.