This is the time to remember
‘Cause it will not last forever
These are the days to hold on to
‘Cause we won’t although we’ll want to…
Each afternoon when I gave Sonny a ride home from school, we would rewind the Billy Joel song over and over.
“We’ll always hold onto these days, won’t we?” he laughingly asked.
“Always!” I enthused with all the certainty of a sixteen-year-old girl who’d not yet experienced enough life to know the toll time would take.
But eventually, life brought marriage, and babies, and hard work. Over the next thirty years, Sonny’s laughter faded from my mind, and the promises of a forever friendship were long forgotten. But upon seeing his gravestone, memories that had long since grown dim came rushing back with brilliant clarity.
Our friendship was born of a mutual need for acceptance. I had just moved to the area, and transferred from a small, Christian school to a large public school. Completely out of my element, I struggled to connect.
I don’t remember exactly when I met Sonny, which is weird because you usually remember meeting the most significant people in your life. It might have been in homeroom or study hall. I just remember that our friendship developed quickly, and laughter bonded us so deeply that it became comfortable to also share our tears.
He was an amazing artist, and I was a budding poet. He drew beautiful pictures for me, and I gifted him with original poems that made him smirk, but which he promised to cherish forever.
My crush was embarrassingly apparent. Sitting across from him in Spanish class, I must have been a little too doe-eyed because one day, our teacher took me aside.
“You need to stop pining for Jerry, and focus on your work. You are too smart to sacrifice good grades for a boy.”
“I know, but I think I love him.”
“And I think he loves you. But do you understand that he can never love you like you want to be loved?”
The truth of her words sank into my brain, and it suddenly became clear. I knew Sonny was different, and I hated how unkind other students were because of it, but I’d never recognized the magnitude of his struggles.
With new eyes, I watched our friendship continue to develop as one of genuine acceptance. Without the sexual expectations of the average boy/girl teen friendships, we were able to see and enjoy one another simply as two human beings.
I think my naivety provided an escape for him, and his nonjudgmental spirit was an escape for me. We talked for hours about life and our dreams for the future. I wanted to be a writer. He wanted to be happy.
We spent Halloween lying on the floor, hands clasped, watching MTV until the wee hours of the morning. When he asked if I wanted to play truth or dare, we shared deep secrets. But he never spoke of his deepest secret, and I never asked.
The following weekend, I didn’t understand why he was hesitant to come to my house for a bonfire and hayride.
“Your dad is a preacher,” he stated, as though the reason for his hesitation should be abundantly clear.
I shrugged my shoulders, “So? It’s not like he’s going to be preaching at the bonfire.”
“Preachers don’t like me because I’m sinful.”
“We’re all sinful, Sonny. Please, just come. I promise no one is going to preach at you.”
I didn’t understand what his experiences with church must have been like in that small Tennessee town, or how uncomfortable it must have made him to be in a preacher’s home. But because it was important to me, he showed up, and shook my dad’s hand. You could see him relax when he realized there would be an absence of judgment.
I can still hear his laughter ringing out on the old wagon as he initiated a hay fight. When some of the other boys started coming close, he instinctively wrapped his arm through mine. Not to protect me, but to protect himself. But we were all misfits trying to sort out our place in the world, and no harm came to anyone that night.
When February rolled around, we were deep in conversation when we realized we were about to be the subject of a photo shoot. The photographer for the school newspaper was taking random shots of couples for the Valentine’s edition.
“They’re about to take our picture,” Sonny informed me.
“People will think we are a couple.”
“We don’t have to let them take the picture,” I started to turn away from the camera.
He pulled me back, “It might help if these stupid people think we’re a couple, but I’m not sure what to do.”
“Just look at me, and pretend you love me.”
“I don’t have to pretend.”
He smiled, and I smiled back. The following week, our picture appeared in the paper, in the shape of a heart. I don’t think it even temporarily lessened the taunting, the punches, and the name calling that he endured on a regular basis.
When Sonny graduated a year ahead of me, he just sort of disappeared. I moved away shortly after my own graduation, and busied myself with life. A decade later, I heard that he’d died of a “complicated illness.”
Another twenty years passed. I was lying in bed, having an online conversation with a classmate who had been searching for Sonny. She didn’t know he had passed away, so I did a quick Google search for his obituary. I found nothing but a startling picture of his gravesite.
May 10, 1969 – December 20th, 1997
December 20th, 1997. I remember the day well. It was my 28th birthday, and the last birthday that I would see my mom. She had come to the restaurant where I waited tables, and asked if I could stay after work to have a Coke. I had three small children at home, and had been working double shifts to buy Christmas presents. I was utterly weary, so, I declined. A decision I have regretted for twenty solid years.
I remember, when mom turned to leave, she had to use the entirety of her small frame to open the door against the wind. The sky was dark, and I could see snow blowing in the light cast from streetlamps. It chilled me to the bone.
I felt the chill again, as I stared at the picture of Sonny’s grave. Pulling the blankets over my head, I sank deep into the covers, and listened to Billy Joel’s “This Is The Time.” I set it to repeat, smiling when I thought of how happy Sonny would be not having to wait for it to rewind. The song played continuously while memories washed over me, and tears washed over my pillow.
I fell asleep dreaming of sunshine, and laughter, and promises to never forget. There was acceptance, and unconditional love, and the handsome grin that lit up his face when he spotted me walking toward his locker.
Once more he hugged me close, and told me he didn’t have to pretend to love me. And then he looked me in the eye, and said, “You’re a writer now. Tell my story. This is the time to remember.”
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