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.
The greatest compliment anyone ever paid our friendship was in the second grade, when Miss Hipscher moved us apart. She said she could tell that we were good friends. We were such good friends that she was going to move us to desks in different parts of her classroom. She told us that we were never going to learn anything if we sat next to each other and talked all day.
What a great thing to notice about a friendship: You two are such good friends that I have to move you apart.
I flew from Chicago to Ohio. It was raining in Bexley that late afternoon, and the grass on Audie Murphy Hill was slick and dark. I looked up to the second floor of Jack's old house, to his bedroom window.
As kids, we had taped a cardboard box above his bedroom door, and had cut the bottom out. We rolled up pairs of Jack's socks, and we played shoebox basketball. After school, day after day, we would feint and lunge, we would try to fool each other with moves.
We loved those games. The laughter in that room, the shouts of triumph or defeat…it warmed our winter days.
He asked me now if I would walk over to Main Street with him. He was tasting his life: savoring who he was, and where he had been, who he had known. He was tasting it with a fierce and pervading kind of appetite.
When we lose our oldest friends, we realize our lives have been filled with their grand, invisible gifts.
It wasn't nostalgia; this was much more profound than that. This, in my eyes, bordered on holy. All these months, instead of making them about death, he was making them about his life. And I found it was the honor of my own life to be alongside him.
At the place on Main Street where Rogers' Drugstore used to be, we paused. "The air conditioning in that store was always so freezing," Jack said, tasting it. "And by the front cash register, it smelled like bubble gum."
At the Bexley Public Library, he fell silent. So much, I could tell, was flowing through him. "The way those books would smell, back in the stacks..." he said.
"The bubble gum at the drugstore, the books here—you're coming up with a lot of fragrances today," I said.
"They smelled like dust, and binding adhesive," Jack said.
He was tasting everything.
There are a handful of people, during your lifetime, who know you well enough to understand when the right thing to say is to say nothing at all. Those people—and there will be, at most, only a few of them—will be with you during your very worst times. When you think you cannot bear that with which the world has hit you, the silent presence of those friends will be all you have, and all that matters.
When, during an already painful juncture in my life, my wife died, I was so numb that I felt dead myself. In the hours after her death, as our children and I tried in vain to figure out what to do next, how to get from hour to hour, the phone must have been ringing, but I have no recollection of it.
The next morning — one of those mornings when you awaken, blink to start the day, and then, a dispiriting second later, realize anew what has just happened, and feel the boulder press you against the earth with such weight that you truly fear you will never be able to get up—the phone rang and it was Jack.
I didn't want to hear any voice — even his voice. I just wanted to cover myself with darkness.
I knew he would be asking if there was anything he could do. But I should have known that he'd already done it.
"I'm in Chicago," he said.
I misunderstood him; I thought he was offering to come to Chicago.
"I took the first flight this morning," he said. He had heard; he had flown in.
"I know you probably don't want to see anyone," he said. "That's all right. I've checked into a hotel, and I'll just sit in the room in case you need me to do anything. I can do whatever you want, or I can do nothing."
He meant it. He knew the best thing he could do was be present in the same town; to tell me he was there. And he did just sit there—I assume he watched TV, or did some work, but he waited until I gathered the strength to say I needed him. He helped me with things no man ever wants to need help with; mostly he sat with me and knew I did not require conversation, did not welcome chatter, did not need anything beyond the knowledge he was there. He brought food for my children and by sharing my silence he got me through those days.
I carried a pizza to his house, near the end. He seemed to be half-asleep.
"You brought me a pizza?" he said, both approvingly, and chidingly — did he look like a guy who, at the moment, was ready to dig into a large pepperoni?
"Maybe not the best idea," I said.
"I'm sort of tired," he said.
"Why don't I come back later," I said. "I've been walking around. I can do that some more while you nap."
"Greene," he said, propping himself up. "What are you wearing?"
I had on a windbreaker and a pair of jeans, both wet from the rain.
"You can't wear that," he said.
"No, no," he said. "I've got a heavy jacket you can wear."
"I don't need it."
He called out to downstairs: "Janice?" She didn't respond. He strained to call even louder: "Jan?"
"Jack, I don't need a heavier jacket."
"You're not leaving without my jacket," he said. He sat up further, pushed the oxygen tubes to the side of his face, and tried to shout for her: "Jan?"
"Don't do that," I said. "It can't be good for your voice."
"I won't do it if you promise you'll take my jacket," he said. Janice appeared in the doorway.
"I have a heavy black jacket down in the back closet," he said to her. "Look what Greene's wearing. Don't let him go out without my jacket on."
She looked at me and shrugged. "You heard him," she said.
He lay back down. "Promise me, Greene," he said.
"I won't leave without the jacket," I said. He drifted off to sleep; Janice and I walked down the stairs. She went to a closet and handed me a black coat.
"Wear it," she said. "You know he's going to ask me about it." So I did. I left the house as he rested; the air was still wet and raw. Full circle, I thought. He's still looking out for me.
I don't know what I said when I spoke at Jack's funeral. I hadn't written anything down. I'd only been getting ready for it for 50 years.
On the way up the aisle at the end of the services, I walked behind the casket. I wanted to talk to him about it—I wanted to tell him: Man, Jack, we thought we'd seen everything. But you won't believe this. Do you know where we were today? Take as many guesses as you want—you'll never guess this one. Not in a million years.
Four rows from the back, sitting on the aisle, was a woman in her seventies.
As Jack passed her, and then as I passed her, I sensed that she was reaching out her hand toward me.
I looked over at her as I walked.
She was Miss Barbara.
I took her hand in mine and she squeezed it, and then we were out the door, and again I wanted to tell him. Guess who was here, Jack. I know you'll get it—think hard. Guess who came to see you today.
I wanted to tell him everything.
Bob Greene is a bestselling author and an award-winning journalist.
Excerpted from the book "And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship" by Bob Greene, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2006 by John Deadline Enterprises, Inc.
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