Memento Mori

80s arcade
But that was long ago, and in another country.

The world has a way of giving notice in no uncertain terms that life is temporary, and time is always bearing us toward its inevitable end. During the ride we pass certain milestones that remind us the clock is ticking.

In the old days in the old country, they’d put up roadside shrines displaying the bones of the saints as memento mori. In these more enlightened times, we have to settle for abstract government studies and actuarial tables. The lack of immediacy lulls us into thinking of death as something that happens to other people. Among the many demerits of Modernism is its tendency to set us up for sucker punches when reality barges into our materialist fools’ paradise.

Few events give us pause to reflect on our mortality more than the death of a childhood friend. Seeing the clock run out on someone about your age reminds you the hour is later than you think. Realizing that someone who shared a significant portion of your life is out of the picture for good is a sobering wake up call death has no exceptions–especially not you.

In my tender years an older kid from the neighborhood took me under his wing. His dubious influence had a major hand in defining who I am to this day. He was in high school while I was in grade school, and he was one of those guys who’s allergic to idleness. It seemed like he was always on the move in search of something new to keep him interested. In effect, he was more like a big brother away at school most of the time who’d roll into town on odd weekends with some fresh mischief up his sleeve.

What would happen is this guy would show up, and before you knew it you’d be deep in conversation about the sorts of questions that kept kids in the 80s awake at night. Did Darth Vader eat solid food, or did his diet consist solely of V8 and Ensure? Why don’t Autobots ever use energon cubes? Do Freddy Krueger and David LoPan have the same curse?

When these mysteries had been plumbed as deeply as current scholarship allowed, he’d start walking, expecting you to follow without a word. And you’d definitely follow, if only out of burning curiosity over whatever was coming next. The day’s activity could be as mundane as helping him collect on his paper route; reading off addresses while the 80s pop culture discussion continued. Or, on the other extreme, you could find yourself in a real-life, though nonlethal, version of Saw.

I fondly remember the time another young friend and I escaped from a cluttered garage booby-trapped with pull-string firecrackers, using only our wits. Our older friend, who’d meticulously prepared the surprise obstacle course, had taken off to a nearby gas station and returned with a bagful of chips, soda, and candy bars at the exact moment we made it out. I still have no idea how he timed it so precisely. I do know the sugary, salty feast was more than worth our inconvenience.

Usually, though, video games were the order of the day. My friend was a big fan of single-player action games and RPGs, so he’d have me navigate from the Nintendo Power map while he played. It was monumentally more fun than it sounds. I knew he didn’t need my help, so it felt good to be asked to help anyway. And just watching him play was a genuine thrill. The man was an artist. A rumor making the rounds back then had it that he’d applied to be an official Nintendo game counselor. Apparently they’d turned him down only because those guys were a pretty small, tight-knit group with super low turnover. But I have no doubt he’d have made the cut on merit.

Cold winter’s days holed up in his cramped upstairs room playing Metroid, summer nights camping out in the back yard, fall afternoons tromping over crisp dead leaves on after-school walks while he regaled me with the plots of horror movies I was too young to see–they’re all among my most cherished childhood memories.

The last time I saw my friend was over twenty-five years ago. Finding out he’d died recently came as a shock, to say the least. At first my mind jumped to the usual suspects: heart attack; cancer. Unlikely. My friend was a Gen Xer who’d just recently entered middle age. Suspicion shifted to common banes of white, working-class men in his cohort: alcoholism, overdose, suicide. Doubtful, unless the slow grinding of years had utterly worn down his passion for life. Must have been a car crash.

Wrong.

My friend, my long lost big brother, suffered fatal trauma in the predawn hours during what looks to have been a burglary gone awry. He lived in a somewhat down-at-heel neighborhood in an overwhelmingly white area, so a meth-head desperate for a fix seemed a good bet. Then I heard they found my friend’s stolen car abandoned miles away in the really bad part of town. The neighbors have nothing but good things to say about the deceased, but they’re afraid to comment further. He lived among people like himself, but diversity found him, even though it had to drive twenty minutes across town.

Take warning.

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