I wrote this two years ago and I’m just publishing it now. Not sure why I waited.
Don was my best friend for the majority of my life. 30 years. At a talent show in first grade we told jokes along with our friend George. We passed around a large joke book and read them aloud. We killed. Don and I played with Snoopy stuffed animals together well into second grade, maybe third, but we kept that activity on the down low, did not want any other kids crashing our super cool time.
We played sports together all throughout grammar school. Don was a very good athlete. I was not. Don was also effortlessly cool and confident, much like his Dad, who one of the best guys I knew. Don’s Dad loved the band Chicago and always played it in his car. I think this is why I am an unapologetic Chicago fan.
Playing at at his house was always fun, lots of basketball and manhunt games in the backyard and endless sessions of hanging out on the deck with his neighbors. They lived on a lagoon in a very nice part of town that bordered a river. Don had a row boat called the Gadabout and later a motorboat. He had a job early on cleaning the lagoon, zipping around in his boat scooping up and fishing out garbage, keeping the water nice and tidy. I was in awe that he had a job at such a young age. A kind of gross job, but still, a job.
Don loved dogs. And in most people’s book, that made him a good person. I believe his first dog was Ralph, a shaggy low-to the ground mutt, followed by his beloved husky Tasha. He was a dog whisperer kind of guy before that was a thing. They sensed his calm demeanor.
Don lost his Mom in fifth grade. That’s when we first learned what grief and loss were about. It was scary as hell. Simply devastating. Roberta was a beautiful person and a wonderful mom. He soldiered on the best he could, stoically, quietly. I was amazed at his maturity during and after her death. He kept a lot bottled up.
We went to our first concerts together – The Who, U2, R.E.M. – and even wore our matching Rush concert tees together to the St. Rose Walkathon. A bold move, but Don was cool so we could pull it off. Don helped me become more confident as a person and put up with my nonsense. He also helped me get a few dates. I was a bit like Richie to his Fonz. Okay, I was more like Ralph Malph.
We worked together in the summer at various jobs in which we were we not very skilled: house painting (summer of 8th grade, our blue-collar beginning); landscaping; and for two gross but oddly blissful summers, beach cleaning. We picked up trash on the Belmar Beach in the very wee hours and slept next to each other in my smelly Buick Skylark for at least 4 hours every morning. We were very skilled at hiding from our boss Lou.
We did extremely dumb things together:
- Driving a Ocean Township Parks Department Ford F-150 through a fence during work
- Getting thrown out of a baseball game we were playing in for throwing rocks at each other
- Sleeping over in Roddy’s filthy garage on multiple occasions
- Embarking on numerous epic bike and train trips in search of parties many towns away
- Getting stranded in the ocean with Larkin in a boat with a dead motor… twice
We were always laughing, never overthinking anything. We went on dates together. We road tripped together. Pretty much, every great time I had as a kid and a teen Don was there making it happen and making it better.
His Dad passed away when we were 23 (maybe 24?), again, another emotional gut punch for Don and his family. A couple years later my Dad passed away and Don was there for me, welcoming me to a club that no one wants to belong to. He didn’t say much. He didn’t have to. I just needed him there. That’s what best buds do.
Don was also there when I got married as my groomsman and made a “best time ever” life event that much better just by being his charming self. I have a very vivid memory of going to the Belmar Fishing Club with my Mom and a group of friends in the late 90s and Don was tearing it up on the dance floor with my Mom and various aunts. He was that kind of good guy. My family and wife adored him.
Not everyone’s life path goes as planned. Since he was a kid, Don always wanted to be an airline pilot. He went to flight school and gave flying lessons for a time but he never got to fly the big jets. Not exactly sure why, but I know this hurt him deeply. He never wanted to talk about it.
Don decided to leave his old life behind and he slowly disappeared. I completely understood his choice and respected his need for privacy. Don dealt with a lot of heartbreak and loss and if needing to start a new life without the pressures of the past is what he wanted – needed, actually – then I was totally fine with that. It sucked but I figured we would just reconnect eventually when he was in a better place. That’s how it goes in movies. We would bump into each other and rehash the good times and start again right where we left off.
I have not seen or spoken with Don in well over a decade but I think about him all the time. It’s hard not to. He was a major touchstone to my youth. Friends go in and out of your life but the experiences and love your best friends bestow upon you become embedded in you. They inextricably become part of who you are.
I would get varying reports about Don from his family members. Always short and very guarded, mostly, “He’s doing fine. He has a nice girlfriend with a child, who Don really loves.” This made me very happy. Don was great with kids.
Other reports were not as positive. He was drinking a lot and becoming more isolated. Occasionally a friend would see him out in public and Don did his best to avoid contact or keep the conversation as short as possible. You hear these things and that’s when you feel helpless but still say to yourself, “Don will pull through. When I see him again, we’ll talk about it.”
Don passed away three weeks ago.
I did not get to say goodbye or hug him or thank him for letting me tag along for so many years. I wish I could have helped him, tried harder to stay in touch, but I didn’t. He helped me in so many ways I can’t even begin to put into words. Processing his loss is difficult and different, and for lack of better words, just incredibly sad for everyone who knew him.
I just want him to know he was loved and will be missed and will never be forgotten.
All I have now are memories of Don and lucky for me, I have a ton of them. Don was a sweet, mellow, funny and talented guy; and I want/need everyone who knew him to remember him that way. He was my best friend, always will be.