I’m fairly certain that most of us have had, at some point in our lives, a friend who was very needy and desirous of our company. In this circumstance, I'm speaking about such a person in my own life. His name is Brian. Though there are many things I will never understand about him, I do understand Brian well enough. I recognize why he has seen me as a best friend, even when I could not provide him with the attention and validation he always wanted from me.
He asked quite a lot and I found I had to be careful to mind my own emotional stamina and boundaries. Being his friend could be very draining, though I always tried to make sure he knew I cared about him.
Brian is the sort of person whose life never really gained traction. In his defense, he was born into a set of very challenging circumstances. His father was an alcoholic with a short temper, a puerile sense of humor, and an abusive tongue. Copying his father, Brian's older brother mocked and belittled Brian on a regular basis, starting from childhood. Brian is a good-natured, well-intentioned oaf of a man who was always his own worst enemy--erratic, self-destructive, and entirely unapologetic about any of it.
We met at the end of middle school. I was a shy, withdrawn kid who excelled in sports, even though I despised almost everything about them. As I've written about many times before, because of my athletic skills, I was a starter on the football team. Brian was a bench-warmer who always looked up to me.
There was a touch of hero worship about how he reacted towards me. I found this unsettling then and to this day I still find it hard to know how to manage being placed up on high. I was a long way from voluntarily taking on leadership roles and knowing how to appreciate accolades and compliments. In short, I had lots of growing up to do. And so did he.
In high school, Brian drifted into the company of others who enjoyed hippie jam bands and leftist politics. This was the same general mix of people who, more recently, formed the membership of the Occupy DC campers I encountered on my visits downtown a while back. Brian tried to soak in the nomenclature, but his grasp of terminology was often lacking, which made him seem like a silly dilettante. I pitied him, but also knew to keep my distance from most of his other friends and acquaintances, whose interest in Brian was superficial at best.
By the time we entered college, Brian was using drugs heavily. Our paths crossed infrequently back then, but when they did, we’d catch up with each other in the kitchen of an old wooden house a couple blocks from campus. That was where I hung out on weekends and during most of the lazy summer break. He supplied the LSD and a few other drugs that the more adventurous students used with frequency. The medium sized city we both inhabited experienced shortages of street drugs on a regular basis, but Brian always seemed to know where to find them.
A handful of my friends sold drugs in college, mostly pot, to avoid having to hold down a real job. I knew what Brian was up to due to the reputation he was fast building, but he and I never talked about it. There wasn’t much to discuss. This is where we began to grow apart. It hurt me to see him turned into the butt of many jokes, jokes always told when his back was turned. His reputation around the university was that of a wild man, who everyone seems to know of, but few wish to have around them.
For reasons unknown, he took off for Huntsville, an hour and a half north of Birmingham. The tech culture there is more favorable for those inclined to it. The U.S. Space Program employs many people with skills in several key areas, especially for those with enough engineering sense to build rockets and keep space shuttles from falling apart upon landing. I really thought he would be happy there, but he only stayed a year and then dropped out completely.
From then on, Brian was mostly a distant memory. I no longer lived where I’d grown up. He stayed around and I left the South, as I knew I must to really be happy. I formed new relationships, new friendships, and consigned him mainly to my past. He was a reminder of a much more aimless and anxious period of my life. For years I’d lived inside a THC cloud of smoke, believing it to be the creative lubricant I had always needed. I realized eventually that the medications I took to stay healthy would never function well if I added marijuana to the cocktail.
Though diagnosed with his own severe case of manic depression, Brian never made the same leap from boyhood to manhood that I did. Most of us reach a point in which we acknowledge that we have entered the adult stage of our lives and act accordingly. I now live in a part of the District of Columbia that is located next to a major university. I see regular evidence of where I used to be in the faces and behavior of the college kids I see chatting on the bus. I used to be there, but I am not there now.
Brian was diagnosed with a form of fatal, non-operative brain cancer a couple years ago. At first, he was told he would die within 12-18 months, but he somehow managed to push through the first extreme bout of chemotherapy and radiation. “Tiger blood!”, he said at the time. I winced at the Charlie Sheen allusion, whose foolish, dude bro behavior Brian had taken literally as a kind of battle cry. That was Brian.
He was convinced he was going to beat the cancer, against all odds, and for a while, it appeared that he might well succeed. Unfortunately, the tumor lodged between his skull and right eye socket decided it would eventually finish him off. Now he sleeps most of the time, too weak to engage with Facebook or e-mail. His mother encourages me to text him with frequency because he likes hearing from me. She reads them to her son because he can’t see very well anymore. The tumor pushes on his optic nerve, meaning that he’s had impaired vision for the last three years and is approaching total blindness.
I know I’ve been very needy myself in friendship from time to time. It took me a while to beat down my own anxieties and took even longer finding the right medications. Though intellectually far ahead of my peers, for a long while I trailed them in learned social skills and interpersonal demeanor. Brian never seemed to mind my limitations and was quite happy to accept me on my own terms. It is for this reason, among others, that I keep up as much as I can with him, until the intensity begins to wear me down.
Not to sound like a coward, but it’s difficult seeing someone you know well wasting away to nothing. I got a chance to say goodbye in June, when it was still possible for him to stand upright and have a conversation. Now, the end is much closer, though the doctors have stopped making predictions about when he will finally pass away. I visualize his funeral and wonder if I am strong enough to fly down for it.
This life really shortchanged Brian. Maybe the next one will be better. He grew up behind the eight-ball from the beginning, as the saying goes. That he was able to do as much as he did in his life is amazing. Others born into similar straits might be in jail now, or have succumbed to an overdose. It makes me recognize once again how much we are all indebted to the circumstances of our birth, and the privilege we have to be born into families where we were wanted and treated with love. Those are the true blessings.