My friend Julius died not long ago, leading me to reflect on his life and mine, and our decades-long friendship. I’ve written a reflection about Julius, a sort of eulogy I suppose. If you’d like to read it you’ll find it below the Audio and Video of this meditation.
Reflecting on friendship led me back to a favorite poem:
Red Brocade by Naomi Shihab Nye
The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.
Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.
No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone put on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.
I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.
Here is the video of today’s meditation:
And here is the audio:
For Julius by James M. Walsh
It was a cold autumn night in 1973 and I was walking across the Fordham University campus, likely heading back to my dormitory after playing pick-up basketball in the gymnasium. I remember that night: cold and crisp air, clear sky, the lights in the buildings – university and residence halls – shining brightly. Along the way I picked up with a fellow walker, my friend Paul, though he was really more a friendly acquaintance, someone who lived with a friend and whose company I always enjoyed even if we saw each other infrequently. Paul was rather stout, with orange-red hair and a bushy beard, kind of a Santa Claus look in the way that tells you this person is kind and generous. Well, at least Paul was, so I was happy to have him join me for the walk home.
After we greeted each other Paul asked me if I could help him, which I agreed to do of course. I think the willingness to help someone, or not, is baked into a person early in life by a parent or parents who know how important kindness can be. Paul told me that he needed help with a Boy Scout Troop. Specifically, he was the Scoutmaster and he needed Assistant Scoutmasters, an idea that I immediately rebelled against. I had been a Cub Scout as a very young boy but never a Boy Scout; I always had imagined I didn’t like Boy Scouts, but I had no rational reason to believe that of course. Paul went on to explain that the Boy Scout Troop was special as it was sponsored by the New York Association for Brain Injured Children, or NYABIC, as they liked to call themselves. This was Boy Scout Troop 666 and, despite the “devilish” number, the boys were great young fellows who needed companionship more than training in scouting skills and lore. At the time I was thinking of adding a concentration in Education to my degree area of Biological Sciences, thinking seriously of becoming a High School science teacher, so helping with this Boy Scout Troop seemed a good thing to do, not just for the members but for me to see if I liked working with adolescents. I said “yes, I will,” and agreed to come to the next meeting.
Later that week, on another cold autumn evening, I walked into Hughes Hall of Fordham University where the Boy Scout Troop meetings were held. As I walked down the long entrance hallway I encountered a six foot three inch, 250 pound, 14 year old Boy Scout in full uniform regalia. I asked him “where is the Scout meeting?” and instead of answering me he asked “why do you want to know?” I told him I was there to help Paul and he reached around me in a bear hug, lifted me six or eight inches off the ground and said “welcome brother!” This was my first meeting with Julius.
My final three years at Fordham were largely focused in two areas: my studies to be a High School science teacher and my weekly evenings with Troop 666. I can honestly say that I do not remember anything from the Boy Scout manual, but I do remember how much fun we had at those meetings. I remember that the parents of these boys found companionship and camaraderie in their gathering space down the hall from the meeting room. I remember that the six or eight of us who were university students found companionship and camaraderie in our shared commitment to being with these boys, a commitment that translated for many of us into careers as educators and helping professionals.
But mostly I remember the companionship and camaraderie of the boys. There were anywhere from ten to fifteen boys, some Cub Scouts and some Boy Scouts, at most meetings. Paul always had a planned activity and taught them the fundamentals of what it means to be a Boy Scout. Every meeting began with a recitation of the Scout Oath: “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight;” followed by the Scout Law: “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” Though most of Paul’s recruits had no history of having been a Boy Scout (half of us were women at a time way before there were girls in the scouting program; most of the men had been scouts), we all worked hard to live up to the Scout Oath and Law, and helped the boys to connect their behavior with one another to the aspirations of these ideals.
I say all of this so you can picture those meetings, and now picture Julius, all of Julius, at these meetings! He towered over everyone, including the Fordham students, and his height was only matched by his good-natured, gregarious way with all of us, from the youngest Cub Scout to the eldest of the parents. If the little boys were playing “Duck Duck Goose” then Julius was in the middle of the game, scampering joyously in pursuit of whoever had tagged him as “Goose.” If it was time for music then Julius would stand tall and in his booming baritone voice lead everyone in song. When one of the boys became frustrated it was Julius who would speak softly, speak calmly and bring that Scout back to the meeting. Julius was a joy to be with, and I liked him from the moment I laid eyes on him.
It was the following summer when I invited Julius and one of the other scouts, Tommy, on a camping trip to an upstate New York State Park. The three of us piled into my Ford Pinto, which was not much vehicle for someone like Julius to squeeze into! We got to the the park and found a good campsite, one with some privacy but not too far from the park’s amenities. We pitched our tents and built a campfire and made dinner, which was probably hot dogs and a few burgers. After dinner Julius announced he was going to take a walk, which was his way to avoid helping with the cleanup. Yes, he was a good guy, but he was known to duck out from doing the dishes now and then. Tommy and I did the work, and as it began to get dark we set out to find Julius. Soon the dusk was becoming darkness, and I began to panic. I was responsible for his safety, of course; he was sixteen and his mother was depending on me. I remember thinking “how will I explain losing someone as big as Julius?” We called his name and scoured the area, to no avail.
Just as we were about to give up finding him we spotted another campsite with a fire and a circle of people sitting and chatting. Above all of the other voices we heard Julius and headed in that direction. When we arrived he laughed and told the group that “it looks like my ride is here,” and said his goodbyes, and they all said their goodbyes to him. As we walked back to our own campsite I asked him about that group and he said “oh, they’re friends of mine.” I laughed out loud and said “what are the odds that a guy from the Bronx would come to upstate New York, to a forest no less, and run into friends?” But nothing would surprise me with Julius as he was just the kind of person who would have friends everywhere. Then I asked him “so how long have you known these folks?” He looked at me like I had missed something important and said “about an hour.”
“About an hour.” That phrase struck me, woke me up. And then I realized exactly who Julius was, I came to clearly see his way of being in the world. For when you met Julius you met someone who thought of himself as your friend, and thought of you and me as his friends. Not a potential friend, an actual friend. And he treated you that way from the moment you met until the moment you parted. That bear hug he gave me that night at Hughes Hall? It wasn’t just me who got that bear hug; whether literally or figuratively everyone got a bear hug from Julius.
These events happened over forty seven years ago. Julius and I have been the best of friends ever since. As a matter of fact, my entire family has been friends with Julius. My wife and children, and now their spouses, all love and were loved by Julius. My sister became close friends with him as well, and after she married and had four children of her own they all came to know and love Julius. He was a fixture at many of our family functions, a valued and much loved guest. But most importantly, always the best of friends.
I write about Julius today because he passed on a Friday morning earlier this month. He died of a heart attack. Julius suffered much over the last years of his life. His legs always had poor circulation, probably part of the birth injuries he suffered. His heart was also damaged, and in the final years of his life he was diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure. Gradually his kidneys failed, then he could no longer walk, and finally he could barely speak. I do not intend to idealize Julius in this reflection; in those final years he could be very unpleasant, but forgiven for being so as his suffering, and how it limited his quality of life, was awful. When I heard the news of his death from his wife I was relieved and grieved; I spent the day quietly feeling some melancholy and some joy. That night for dinner I had some comfort food (mashed potatoes; I’m Irish after all) and a glass of wine. And I thought about my friend, and told stories about him to my friends and family.
Julius used to kid me about having a doctorate and still not being able to do things he could do, like fix a doorbell or whip me in a game of backgammon. Julius did not graduate high school; rather they gave him a certificate for successfully completing his four years there. But Julius had a doctorate in humanity and lived that doctorate to the full. I miss him terribly, and will always feel deep gratitude for the universe connecting us. I can still feel in my imagination that bear hug, still hear that sonorous voice saying “Jimmy you’re educated by not real smart,” and then laugh and let me know that he was glad to know me. You see Julius was a friend, and he taught me how important it is to be a friend to everyone. Sometimes I imagine what my life would be like if I was as skilled at being a friend as Julius was. I miss you Julius; I hope you’ve been able to cast off the travails of that body that failed and are living with a smile on your face and a bear hug embrace for whoever happens to pass your way in that life eternal to come.