A Lesson in Friendship

It is Dec. 12, 1989. My mother is waking me up, I assume for school. But instead of telling me to get up, or even turning on the light, she tells me that my grandmother, my dad’s mother, died during the night.

She had been sick for a while, with cancer and leukemia, among other things, and we all knew she was going to die soon. But I can’t say I was prepared for it. I wasn’t. But everyone else seemed to be OK about it, and far be it for me to show more emotion than everyone else.

My mother tells me I don’t have to go to school if I don’t want to, but I see no reason not to. I don’t realize it, but I have somehow conditioned myself not to feel sad about my grandmother’s death.

I don’t tell anyone at school, simply because I can’t think of anyone I should tell. It’s not like I don’t have any friends; on the contrary, I have more friends than I know what to do with. But all of them, it seems, are my friends simply because I make them laugh, and I hang around with them because they’re a good audience. I do hope to become a professional humor writer some day, but I seem to be regarded as one already.

After two days, I still haven’t told anyone. Finally, the day before the funeral, I decide that maybe I’ve been wrong about them, and that maybe they will understand, and that maybe they are good friends.

I tell one person I won’t be at school the next day because I’m going to a funeral. He asks who died and I tell him. He seems to think for a moment, and then he says, “I had a turtle that died once.”

Later, I tell the boy who is supposedly my best friend (and I guess if you consider the bunch of them “friends,” he would be the best). He says, “Your grandmother? How’d she kick it?” Instead of committing an act of violence toward him like I should, I am quiet for a minute. I finally decide that no, everyone expects me to be happy and funny all the time, and if I’m not, they won’t like me at all, so why disappoint them.

I make a joke. I say, “I think my grandfather killed her.”

Then I feel bad. I feel like I have betrayed my grandmother. But I still don’t cry.

During my English class, I receive a note from the yearbook staff telling me they need to take my picture the next day. I go to tell them I can’t do it then; I’ll be at a funeral. A girl I don’t even know says, “Oh? Who died?” I say, “My grandmother.” She says, “I’m sorry.”

The thing is, she sounds like she means it. And she doesn’t even know me.The next day is the funeral. I remember it as being dark and overcast, but I’m not sure it actually was. I go to my first class because I have to take care of some assignments, and everyone is very happy.

It’s Christmastime.

I don’t feel happy, but I don’t feel sad, either.

As I talk to people and go about my business I keep thinking that I should be sad, and I wonder why I’m not. Also, I keep thinking of funny things to say, but I don’t want to say them because I think it would be disrespectful to my grandmother.

Some of them are so good I have to say them, though.

And then I feel bad.

At the funeral, I see my grandfather wearing a button-up shirt. He is from Arkansas, and before now, I have always seen him in a white T-shirt, sitting on the front porch, chewing tobacco, and being friendly to everyone.

I have never seen him when he was not smiling, or at least on the verge of smiling. I have never heard him raise his voice. Even when he cracks a joke, which is often, he does it quietly and subtly. To me he has always been the epitome of a grandfather.

He still seems that way, but somehow just a little different.

As the priest talks about how wonderful my grandmother was — and he is right — I happen to glance at my grandfather.

He doesn’t look grandfatherly anymore.

He doesn’t look friendly anymore.

He is crying.

I realize that this woman was not just my grandmother. She was my grandfather’s wife. He’ll miss her more than I will.

Then I realize that if there’s one thing I learned from my grandmother, it’s not to worry all the time about how you’re expected to act. Sometimes you just have to do what seems right to you. That’s what my grandfather is doing when he cries.

Soon, that’s what I’m doing, too. I’m crying. None of my friends are here to see me, but they are positively the furthest thing from my mind at this point. I don’t care if I ever see them again.

I would like to see my grandmother again, though.

Just to thank her.

It’s a year and a half later. Now I have some good, true friends. I hardly associate with the others anymore.

When my friends have problems — when they get depressed about something, or when something bad happens to them — I try to let them know that I understand and that it’s OK for them to feel that way.

I don’t want them to think that they are expected to act a certain way all the time.

I think that’s what true friendship is. Knowing that it’s OK to be yourself.

I got a lot of feedback on this column, the only serious one I ever wrote. (I wrote plenty that were serious in the sense of not being funny, but this one actually wasn't SUPPOSED to be funny.) People said it made them cry. I think that was the point.

I can see now how I didn't really make a point with the column. I didn't establish well enough my grandmother's character so as to make what I learned from her really hit home at the end. It's something I could do better now; perhaps I will rewrite it someday.

I'm including the column here in its original form partly for historical value, and also partly to document what I was going through. A teen-ager's struggle to be understood and accepted is one of the most painful things in the world, and it's one that nearly everyone can relate to. But sometimes we forget, once we've grown up and "made it," what it was like to be young. Here I was, a "funny" guy, at war with myself. Part of me wanted to be funny and make people laugh, and part of me hated people for laughing. How come they laugh now, but when I need them, they won't take me seriously? How can I get them to see me as a real, three-dimensional person, without sacrificing the thing that apparently attracts them to me the most? It's something I fought with every day for most of my high school years.

In this column can also be found a scathing rebuke for my so-called "friends" who were insensitive to me when my grandmother died. In a way, you can't really blame them, because I had never been very serious with them before; how could I have expected them to respond when I changed all of a sudden? But again, this is a good glimpse into how I thought, the anger and frustration I felt at being isolated as a result of my emotions.

I think a person is lucky if, over the course of his life, he has even five or six real, true, honest-to-goodness FRIENDS. People who accept him for who he is and love him unconditionally. People who don't judge him or expect him to always be a certain way. People who stick with him no matter what, and who are selflessly loyal to him. This is the kind of friend I try to be, and I treasure the one or two people I've known who have been the same kind of friend to me.

Sorry. The next column is rude and obnoxious again, I swear. Thanks for indulging me.