There are some relationships that don't really have a name. Like the third cousin who's actually more like a sister since your great grandmother raised her mother and you live next door to each other on the Upper West Side. Or the very nice couple whose equally nice daughter has been dating your son for two years. Yiddish has some phrases that work for those; I suspect Chinese does as well. English fails miserably, leaving us to muddle through with linked phrases that don't mean very much at all.
Ours was that kind of relationship. The kind that you can't explain without resort to analogies or phrases that sound as if they were translated badly from another realm. He was my ex-boyfriend. He was my friend. He was the man who probably saved my life when I was seventeen. The man I thanked by breaking his heart three years later. The man I almost certainly would have married if I hadn't been so young, and ambitious, and eager to try new things that, in retrospect, weren't all that exciting after all.
He was sixteen when we met; the new kid from the wilds of Alabama who landed, overalls and all, in our Westchester suburb that seemed never before to have registered anyone from the South. He was model gorgeous, with a chiseled jawbone and the carefree athlete's body that the gods bestow every once in a while upon adolescent males. When he ran, as he did, both because he could clock a 4:38 mile and because he had never bothered to learn to drive, it looked like he was dancing. We ran everywhere that first year, into construction fields and down by the brook and along the then-rural pathways that would later become the long front yards of hedge fund McMansions. He would leave me, sweaty and exhausted at my parents' house, and then glide back effortlessly for the route home. When I crashed my parents' Ford one day driving carpool (I, alas, had learned to drive, but only very badly), he built a giant set of cardboard training wheels and attached them to my family's remaining Pinto. We did everything you're supposed to do when you're young, and single, and in love.
When we headed off to college in different parts of the country, we convinced ourselves, like millions of lovelorn teenagers, that we would be the ones who could hold it together; that we'd stay in love and be with each other despite the gaps of time and distance and the lure of new attractions. And for two years, we did.
And then, on an October day so perfect it hurt, I broke up with him. Not for any particular reason, in retrospect, but because I was young and curious and worried that staying forever with the boy you fell for at sixteen was the wrong thing to do.
I went on to marry a very different man, an older man, a fabulous man who loves me and pampers me and has been with me now for thirty years and three children and all the joy, chaos, and large plastic objects that life throws one's way. My friend stayed single for a while longer, built a career and a life in the city I had once called home, and eventually married a lovely and determined woman who had also ventured north from Alabama.
And somehow, slowly, but with a vigor that increased as our kids got older and our lives less frantic, we stayed friends. Not the kind of friend you see or speak with every day, but the kind you call when you're scared, or thrilled, or just desperate to hear from someone who has known you forever. Someone who knows you and your stories better than anyone else ever can or will. He became an easy extension of my family, a sort of uncle-cousin with no formal name who ran with my younger son as he had once run with me.
So it seemed perfectly normal one day in January when my older son arranged to meet him over breakfast for career advice. And only slightly disconcerting when he was 30 minutes late, and then an hour. But punctuality was never his strong suit, and something more important could so easily have happened.
But then the phone rang from my office with a message from someone I didn't know. A man who claimed he needed to talk to me soon. When I called, he solemnly told me that there had been an accident. A bad, stupid accident that had thrown him from his bicycle in a nanosecond and left him sprawling, bleeding and unconscious, on the street. He was in a coma and the prognosis was grim.
My mind reeled as my legs started shaking. This couldn't be happening. Not to him. Not like this. Not now. But of course it was. Over the next few days, and then weeks, my control-freak self was slammed into purgatory. Because I wasn't family or next of kin, I had no standing to receive information, and no desire to bother his-already burdened family. All I could do was wait, and pore over the reams of shared memories that suddenly had no partner and nowhere to go. There were all the high school classmates -- now adults, of course -- whose stories we had shared. The long-forgotten basketball games where he had played and I had cheered him on, stealing glances and exchanging looks that no one else had noticed, much less remembered. The letters -- hundreds and hundreds of them -- that we had exchanged religiously every day for two years, stowed in our respective attics now, and moldering away. How could any of our stories live on if he were gone?
After about two weeks, the better news started to dribble in. He regained consciousness, wasn't paralyzed, hadn't -- most basically, most critically -- died. The blow, at 35 miles per hour, had sheared the neural connections in his brain, a condition known as diffuse axonal injury, or DAI. Ninety percent of DAI's victims either die or remain in a coma. He hadn't. But all of his cognitive functions -- remembering people, remembering events, remembering how to send an email or where he'd parked the car -- had been severed, and the physiological foundation of his memory had been shattered. He, a physics major who once taught himself Russian for fun, saw a bluejay from his hospital bed and thought it was commanding him to take over the world.
Slowly, though, and painfully, my friend recovered. He spent months in rehabilitation, re-discovering how to operate his body and his mind. He developed tricks to deal with what had once been the simple routines of daily life and grappled far too early with what it means to grow old. He gave up competitive cycling and learned to think in ways he had always hated -- defensively, cautiously, slowly. With his own memories too murky to assemble, he borrowed greedily from those around him, poring through photographs that only partly made sense.
It's nearly two years now since his accident and, after endless hours of therapy and intensive care, my friend has gradually stitched his brain back together, and his life. Thanks perhaps to his obsession with physical fitness, or his faith, or sheer good luck, he has regained more cognitive function than DAI victims can generally expect. He is working, and driving, and running almost as beautifully as he always did. But the mind is a mysterious organ and memories buried in long-ago pathways aren't easily reclaimed. I know I harbor fragments that were ripped forever from his brain; pictures and stories and silly wisps of time that no one but me now will ever remember. And so as I call him -- gratefully, thankfully -- to talk once more, I can't help but wonder: what happens to our lives when the keepers of our memories are snatched away?
Recently, we stole a few days to visit a town we had stayed in some thirty years ago. We wandered into the same shops; ate the food we both recalled; and lingered along a beach whose contours had been pummeled and reshaped by three decades of coastal storms. We joked about returning in another thirty years, when the beach, and perhaps even the town, will likely have been swallowed by the sea. And maybe we will. If we are around. And if we still remember.