En español | We walked slowly to Audie Murphy Hill. It's at the north edge of the small front lawn at 228 SouthArdmore. He — Jack — used to live in that house, when we first became best friends. We were five then; we were 57 now.
"It seemed so steep," I said to him.
"Well, we were little," he said.
This was toward the end. Every time I came back home to see him, we made the walk. He wanted to.
The slope hardly rises. But in those years when he and I first knew each other — the years just after World War II — it felt to us like something out of Italy or North Africa. We would charge up that placid piece of grass on that safe Ohio street and, sticks standing in for rifles, we would pretend we were Audie Murphy. The most decorated combat soldier of the war.
"You feel like climbing up the hill?" I asked. It wasn't a hill at all. But it was too daunting for him.
A few months earlier, Jack hadn't been feeling well. He came home from work and went up to the bedroom. He'd told Janice, his wife, to let him know when it was time for dinner. She found him on the floor, unconscious.
We all, if we're lucky, have someone in our lives like Jack — our first friends, our oldest friends. If we're especially fortunate, they remain close to us no matter where the world leads us.
The friends who mean everything to us — the friends without whom our lives would be empty — are our most enduring models of grace and good fortune. When we lose them, we realize that our own lives have been filled to overbrimming with the grand, invisible gifts they have given us.
I know the exact moment I met him.
We were in kindergarten in Bexley,Ohio. Miss Barbara was the teacher. One afternoon we were all sitting on the floor around her. I was near the back, and I noticed something on my lip — it felt as if my nose was dripping.
We'd roll up socks and play shoebox basketball. The laughter, the shouts…it warmed our winter days.
I'd had nosebleeds before, but my mother was always there to help. Now I was sitting on the floor with other five-year-olds. I was embarrassed. When you're that age, the last thing you want is to be singled out in public.
I tilted my head toward the linoleum floor, hoping no one would see. I lifted the bottom of my T-shirt, pressed it up against my nose, thinking the pressure would stop the blood. It didn't. Now the shirt had blood on it, and I was feeling a five-year-old's panic.
Then, a few feet away from me, someone stood up. I heard his voice before I saw him. I had been staring straight down, scared and ashamed.
"Miss Barbara?" he said.
She stopped reading aloud.
His name was Jack Roth. We didn't know each other, but he'd been listening during the daily roll call, and he'd learned my name. Within a minute I was in the nurse's office, getting cleaned up. Everything would be fine.
"Bob's hurt." Like the rest of us, the last thing he wanted was to disrupt this new kindergarten world. But there he was. Standing straight up, for someone he didn't yet know.
After Jack had collapsed, the doctors determined that he was full of cancer, including in his brain. If he began radiation and chemotherapy immediately, he might live a year or two. And here is what Jack said to me to sum up what he'd been told. A month before, he had been working hard at his job, he had been laughing with his friends and family, he had been making plans for vacation trips. Now, in a clear and steady voice, this is what he said: "I got dealt a hard hand." That was it.