Yesterday, the first of my childhood group of friends died. He was 44 years old.
I don’t even know where to begin writing about this, but clearly I have to write about it. As the day went on yesterday, I became increasingly less functional, from feeling shocked and stunned, to quietly lost, to light-headed and shaking, until finally, closing the refrigerator door after searching in vain for something I felt like eating, I collapsed into great heaving sobs. What the fuck?
Jason Blum and I weren’t close. I knew him not at all as an adult and, truthfully, I didn’t know him very well when we were kids either. We were part of a large group of friends who shared their pre-adolescence, in all its steamy, raucous, heartfelt curiosity, exploring our independence and hormones with the fervor only middle-schoolers can muster. Many of us went to high school together, too, and though I stayed close with only a few from our middle school group (choosing instead to spend my time with the drama crowd and progressively older boys) when our 10-year high school reunion came along, the kids of my youth were the people I wanted to see. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. A good twenty of us crowded around a single table, remembering the wild adventures we’d shared all those years.
Which brings me back to Jason. He wasn’t among my closest confidantes, but he is a constant in my memories from that time.
He came to our school in fifth grade, I think. He was dream-y cute and found quick entry into our clique. I remember him being sort of gangly, sweet, and REALLY funny, a bit goofy too.
For some reason, I remember him running up to me in the hall outside Ms. Trafton’s classroom, begging me to hide him from Adar Bolton, who I could see walking slowly toward us from the far end of the hall. Jason showed me the 1/2 inch gash in his arm that Adar had put there with her long fingernails, a sure sign of puppy love. “She’s crazy,” Jason squeaked, with a perfect ten year-old’s dramatic gasp. As Adar got closer, Jason took off down the stairs. Adar walked up to me and, with a sly smile, showed me the thumbnail she had trimmed to a sharp point. “I’m gonna get him soooo good,” she said and turned to follow him down the stairs.
I remember playing tackle, a ball-less, rule-less game where the boys would chase the girls and, if successful, tackle them on the grass field — just to get up and do it again. The following year, we graduated to kiss-tackle, where the reward of a kiss was added to the full-body contact blows. We all chickened out before it became French kiss-tackle.
I remember roller skating through the streets of Beverly Hills, a hoard of us, all with T-shirts that said “Rollers” on the back. In some wild stretch of the imagination, we might have been a fierce looking gang if the front of the shirts hadn’t had the logo from the Broadway show “They’re Playing Our Song.” (David Brower’s dad had written it or directed it or something, and the shirts were free.)
I remember the jittery, dangerous thrill of attending a small “boy/girl party” at Jason’s house, one in which it was declared that Spin-the-Bottle was for little kids and it was time to play Seven-in-Heaven. I remember “heaven” being inside Jason’s bedroom closet, and David Brower and I dutifully going in only to sit in the dark, without touching, for 6 minutes and 50 seconds, until the pressure of our evaporating opportunity forced us into kissing. Someone opened the door and took a picture of us at that moment — neither David nor I noticed — but it was later flaunted as proof of our intimacy.
Cracks me up to think of it now. All you could see was the back of my head and the long, blonde curtain of hair hanging from it. David and I were both so shocked that we hadn’t noticed a flash picture being taken… Ah, young love (with a little bit of nervous terror thrown in). I thought of that night often, walking past Jason’s house everyday on my way home from school.
Jason played drums and had his own drum kit, something that gave him rock star status near instantly when we were ten. Three years later, I remember he and his kit in the center of our graduation stage, as the glee club sang “I Sing the Body Electric” from Fame. Jason seemed caught between thinking the whole thing was stupid and enjoying the spotlight. I’ve no idea how he really felt.
Jason and I were not at all connected in high school and I lost track of him the moment we graduated. Then, a couple of years ago (thanks to Facebook), we reconnected, even talked on the phone a couple of times. I was surprised to hear he’d become a Los Angeles police officer. He seemed to me to have a profound disdain for authority when we were teenagers. I more expected him to be on the other side of the law. Shows you how well I knew him.
He served 20 years, until a terrible accident landed him behind a desk and he chose to retire. We bonded a bit over having suffered terrible, physical injury. He had been quite lucky to escape paralysis, actually. And I think he was genuinely affected by my lack of such luck.
Then, we lost touch again until I saw a post on Facebook saying he’d died.
Trying to make meaning of my emotions, I find myself returning again and again to a single image — a group of us, in the courtyard at Kim Ingber’s house, sitting in a circle while the soundtrack to The Rocky Horror Picture Show plays in the background. I’m not sure why my mind settles on that image since I don’t think Jason was there. Nevertheless, I see the scene in stop-motion, our faces and gestures frozen in time. As I scan the circle, the smiles and jeers, it’s clear that none among us would have guessed that, someday, I’d be unable to walk and Jason would be dead at 44.
And I guess that’s what this comes down to, at least in part, a sense of vulnerability and the inescapability of our mortality. I used to be quite close to both, for a few years at least after my accident. But a bustling life and relative safety have dulled my sensitivity, or perhaps bolstered my denial. In the darker moments of this last day, I’ve been reminded that I and my childhood friends are at an age where we’ll soon discover who among us will have cancer or heart disease. Unfortunately, we already know at least one who will die young.
Of course, in extremely dark moments, these thoughts have carried over to my young son, wondering what unimaginable horror might await him. Thankfully, though, an equally powerful thought has occurred: What joy and wonders await him, too?
It’s true that none of us back then could have imagined the tragedies that have occurred, but we also could not have imagined the wonders — the extraordinary adventures, the dance companies founded, the public service, the over-the-moon thrill of being parents. These dreams were forming, but who knew just how glorious our collective lives would be? I, sure as hell, didn’t.
So while I grieve and sit with the terrible discomfort of life’s uncertainty, I am grateful to be reminded that now is a time to live. And looking at my life, it’s clear that I am doing exactly that. And that this is a good, good life. I’m Mama to a extraordinary, joyous little boy; wife to a deeply devoted husband; friend to several communities of loving like souls. I’ve done good work in the world, touching the lives of thousands of people, and hundreds of children before that. I use my gifts, and haven’t let loss or fear steal my life. I pray I have many more years ahead of me but if I don’t, I can die knowing that I have truly lived.
I didn’t know Jason well-enough to know if that was true for him. From what I’ve read other people writing, it seems perhaps it was. Those who loved him appreciated him deeply, his humor, his fierce love, his devotion.
For me, I’m warmed by the memories of our shared emergence, and grateful for the gift he’s given me today. I’m grateful to be reminded to live and laugh and love, now. I hope every day of my life going forward will only honor that gift.
Jason Blum 1968 – 2013
May you rest in peace.