A friend of mine from our teenage years died recently, after a long, slow decline, taken from us before his time. For more than fifty years, Paulie and I celebrated our friendship in the company of our wives, themselves close friends since high school, and our children.
We journeyed through many stages of life together—boyhood teammates and opponents in the sports we loved to play; young men starting out, full of hope and sure of success; new fathers, surprised at how quickly we got to that point; fellow-travellers far and wide, our growing families in tow; and eventually grandfathers, proud all over again of a new generation. Through it all, we played our games and remained steadfast friends.
Our boyhoods were spent in the suburbs, where every community had its own park, and we spent hours there after school and on weekends. We were from different neighbourhoods, but connected on those playing fields during the endless summers and wondrous winters, eager warriors on the ball-diamonds and hockey-rinks. Especially the hockey-rinks.
In every park there was an outdoor ice pad or two, where neighbourhood fathers (and a few intrepid mothers) would stand every night, alone in the dark, flooding water on the rinks to provide fresh ice for the following day. I’m not sure we thanked them enough back then, but we sure benefited from their dedication.
By the time we’d arrive at the rink, skates dangling from the hockey sticks propped on our shoulders, fresh snow had often fallen. So the first kid to get there would take one of the shovels propped in the surrounding snowbanks, and start clearing the ice. As more of us arrived, we’d take turns until the ice was cleaned off. And then we’d lace up and the game would begin.
Paulie and I were habitués of those parks.
As adults, our careers took us in different directions, and to different cities. But we talked frequently by phone—mostly about business, our families, and, of course, sports. Especially hockey. We never talked about dying and the hereafter, and what it might hold, not even near the end. We weren’t afraid of it, I don’t think; it was just too abstract to be contemplated.
But now it’s happened. My friend has gone.
But where? Where is he now, I wonder? Or, more precisely, where is the essence of who he was? His soul, some might call it. In my sorrow, I’ve concocted a scenario that consoles me, regardless that it may sound far-fetched to others. Paulie would understand.
There’s a celestial park somewhere, complete with a neighbourhood ice pad. It’s covered with the whitest snow any of us has ever seen, and my friend is the first one there. He’s grabbed a shovel, and he’s busy scraping the ice.
Sooner or later, I like to imagine, I’ll be joining him. He knows that, so he’s not troubled. And when that day arrives, when he sees me coming, he’ll stop for a minute, lean on his shovel, and shout in my direction.
“’Bout time ya got here! Where ya been?”
I’ll shrug and wave a greeting, my wide smile letting him know how happy I am to see him again.
“Grab a shovel,” he’ll yell, as I stuff cold feet into my skates. “This is hard work!”
But it won’t be, not really. It will be joyous work—legs pumping, hearts pounding, breath forming around our heads, skate-blades cutting their cold, choppy sound in the ice. Just like always…just like always.
In no time at all, the snow will be cleared, the ice will be ready. And when it is, I choose to believe, we’ll toss a puck out on the ice, take up our sticks yet one more time, and play our game together, the game we always loved. The way we loved each other.
Teammates again, friends forever.
Paul Joseph Boyer
26 July 1942 – 16 March 2017