Family is a complex thing for me and for many other people, it is the template for our lives so often, it is, for me, the puzzle never solved. My best friend when I was a child – the only memory of my childhood – was of my friendship with Jon, a cousin. We lived a few blocks from each other and we spent a lot of time together. I don't remember too much about him, not really.
I remember hanging out with him after school, walking through the neighborhood, eating ice cream together. I remember going to family functions and being with him, I had a good feeling about him, I remember him as kind, gentle, easy to talk to. We even had the same name. Jon is really the only thing I remember from those early years apart from some things I don't wish to remember. When we were nine, he vanished one day, his family moved out to the Midwest, I learned, we never got to say goodbye or speak again for many years.
I lost track of him, never heard from him, never tried to contact him. One evening, at a book reading in the Southwest, a man came up to me and introduced himself to me, "you don't recognize me do you?," he asked, and I didn't. It was a cousin, I think, perhaps an uncle, but I was in a bad place on that time, I had shut out everyone in my family, I had come to see family as a disturbing and dangerous thing. On that book tour, I took a cane along, I don't know why, honestly. I had hurt my back in a fall, but I didn't really need a cane and threw it away shortly after I got home.
People who saw me on that book tour always ask me about my health, I didn't realize at that time I was beginning my long and spectacular crack-up and I felt sick and must have looked ill. I was alone and in a loveless life, I felt old, I think, I began to act that way. I felt my life was ending, I was beginning to be as ill as I must have looked, but it was not my body that was aging, it was my mind and my heart. I talked to Jon a bit, then fled the bookstore. I barely remember meeting it, I was not, as the therapists say, available.
I should say that my family was shattered not long after Jon left, and even before, torn apart in the most awful and enduring ways. We have never recovered, I shut family out of my left, I shut out the past. I did not see my mother for a number of years before she died, I have only spoken to my brother two or three times in the past decades, I love my sister dearly, we were so close as children, but life tore us apart and I speak with her once or twice a year, it is all we can do, really. We talked last night, one of her dogs is dying of cancer, and it is a time when she needs me to be in touch and asks me to be in touch. I am grateful for the chance to be a brother.
There is no ill will among us, that would perhaps be easier to bear. After I hung up with my sister, who was very sad and who talked about a number of issues in her life, I remembered Jon, and I felt a strong wish to find him and talk to him. I don't know why, mind and memory is a curious thing. My memories of him were still so strong. Thanks to the Internet, I tracked him down in a couple of minutes, I found someone by that name, a lawyer practicing in the same city where I had seen that relative at my book reading. It had to be him, I called his office and left a number, "I said this is Jon, if you are the same Jon I was best friends with, you will know me and please call," and I left my number.
This morning, just after I sat down to write, the phone rang and it was Jon. "It is me," he said, "is this you?" I swear, something in the voice touched something deeply inside of me, I nearly cried. I spent the next two hours on the phone with him. It was as if we have never stopped talking. He remembered me well, he also had often thought of me, he remembered a quiet and shy boy who was always reading, who always had a book with him. We filled one another in on the happenings in both of our lives and our families, he was curious to know about my family, there were all kinds of rumors but no one really knew what had happened to all of us, what was going on.
I think the most striking thing about the call is that I know nothing of who I was then, I remember nothing, I have blanked all of it out. Jon painted the portrait of a quiet and shy child, a voracious reader, he said he didn't think he ever saw me without a book in my hand, I don't recall that or what I might have been reading. He said the last time he saw me, I was sitting on a fire escape outside of my grandmother's apartment reading a book. I bet it was one of the Hardy Boy books. Jon, I found, is still gentle, still thoughtful, still grounded, still a friend.
I was already making up stories in my head, living inside of my own world. He said I always seemed to be in my own head. It was striking to hear this voice from the other side, from so far back. To see this portrait of me, painted by my first friend. All of my life I have avoided the people in my past, and here I am, tracking down one of the first. Isn't life curious?
I told Jon a little of what I do remember of what happened in my family, he listened quietly, he was, he said, very surprised, he had no idea. In that world, families kept their secrets, there was little understanding of psychology or even medicine. He had some of his own. Jon's family has hung together, stayed in touch, supported each other. I felt a pang about that.
Jon is thinking of doing some writing, he is in his 60′s and wondering how much longer he wants to practice law. I gave him my creative spark speech, he got interested. We traded cell phone numbers, e-mails. We hope to see each other again, we mean to stay connected, I got an e-mail from him minutes later saying he was grateful I had looked for him and found him. "It matters," he said on the phone. It does. I don't understand this, but I know it is healing, I know it is good.