A wickedly wonderful friend this way came — and left much too soon

This view from our office's back door for five days each year is always bittersweet.

This view from our office’s back door for five days each year is always bittersweet.

As I walked to work this morning, the sun was still resting below distant Badger Mountain. The streets were quiet and the air was still as I made my way along the sidewalk, past the carnival that claims the visitors parking lot across from our home each year. Last night it was alive with the sounds of oiled metal grinding behind colorful facades — rocketships, dragons and race cars — as carnival-goers screamed and laughed in rhythmic cycles throughout the evening.

But this morning, the neon lights are out. The colorful merry-go-round is drapped in blue tarps. There are no screams or laughter. Only the occasional murmur of snoring from inside the narrow carnie sleeping quarters stacked side by side on tractor trailor beds. I cut through the carnival, stepping over a braid of thick electrical cables that eventually spread like veins through the park, bringing life to thrill rides, snack shacks and carnival barker microphones.

Each year, I make this walk to work through the Davis Carnival.

And each year, I think of my friend — and the memory of a warm, terrible spring evening that occured this same night more than a decade ago…

It’s a strange juxtaposition I find myself in, watching the arrival of the carnival and seeing the excitement in the eyes of our children. But as the rides are hammered together late into the evening, I am reminded of the night 14 years ago when my best friend called to tell me he was coming back home to Oregon — because he was dying.

He was 30 years old.

I had been working late at the newspaper that evening and was just heading out the door when my cell phone rang. Seeing that it was my friend, I stopped in the open doorway and leaned against the jam, enjoying the spring air and watching the Ferris wheel begin its first revolution in preparation for opening night. It was well past dusk, and the strobing and spinning lights of the carnival were like shooting stars, rising into the night sky and reflecting off the surface of the nearby Siuslaw River. As my friend spoke, I found myself watching The Zandar, a spinning hub routinely hosed down after launching people’s stomach contents. When the words “cancer” and “inoperable” escaped the phone, my world began to spin as well. I remember slowly sliding down the jam, and the feel of the strike plate gouging my back until I had collapsed into a hunched position. He explained the ocular cancer, which had taken his left eye nearly two years earlier, had returned and spread to his brain and organs through his lymph nodes. He had less than three months. In the distance, I heard the first screams of carnival goers and, for only the third time in my life, I wept uncontrollably…

image In September of 1995, I received a letter from my mother. Included with it was something she’d cut out of the local paper, something written by a young man who, that July, had become the new sports editor for the Siuslaw News. As I unfolded the three-column rectangle of news print, a smiling face appeared below the wide brim of an Australian-style hat.

The face was kind. Genuine. And in the eyes was a vibrancy and glean that transcended the black and white newspaper page.

Long before I actually met Jason F. Jensen, I somehow knew that his eyes were blue. That he walked with his hands in his pockets. That he preferred hiking boots over Reeboks. And that his wit was sharp, but never cruel.

As I read the last paragraph of my mother’s letter, she closed with a mixture of whimsey and intuition:

I hope you can meet each other some day; I know the two of you would be great friends.

I then sat down to read “Breathe easy, young man,” Jason’s first column for the Siuslaw News, and was immediately taken by the description of his escape from the San Bernandino Valley — a 15 mph getaway in his “violent-yellow” VW van that marked his return to Oregon after a year of living in the “coffee-colored haze” of southern California.

In his writing was a mixture of truth and vulnerability laced with subtle humor — qualities that were a direct reflection of his natural disposition as both explorer and astute observer of life.

By the following afternoon, the column had been laminated and posted on our refrigerator door.

Three years later, we arrived back in Florence with our possessions, our plans to settle down, our new jobs and our refrigerator — column still in place. It wasn’t until months later, while visiting some friends, that a lanky figure descended the stairs into the living room, hands in his pockets. He had hiking boots on, and his blue eyes greeted us long before the words could leave his mouth. As he pulled his wide-brimmed hat into place, I blurted, “You’re the guy on my refrigerator!”

One might say that from those words, our friendship began.

But, I’d have to disagree; in actuality, it started long before that. Long before my mother decided to clip that first column from the newspaper. Long before he sat in this very newsroom and wrote a story about returning home that remains on our refrigerator to this day. I believe that true friendship begins long before a handshake or shared laugh. It’s something set into motion and meant as a gift for staying on pace with your life.

Make the right decisions and remain true to yourself, and you will find the gift of true friendship.

Based on that belief, I’d have to say that returning to Florence was the best decision I ever made. Jason became one of my truest friends, closest confidants, and the godfather to my son (And yes, Jason could do a mean Marlon Brando).

If friendship is the metronome of life, I’d have to say Jason’s was paced with absolute precision — a notion made evident by the ever-widening circle of friends he made in his 30 years of life.

When it all comes down to it, love is the only real measure of success. It’s the only thing worth taking with you, and the most lasting gift you can leave behind.

Jason, should you ever question your measure of success in this life, take a look at our refrigerator door —

And breathe easy, young man.

image

___________________________________________________________________________________

(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.)

Advertisements

53 thoughts on “A wickedly wonderful friend this way came — and left much too soon

  1. WOW! Ned, that was a very beautiful piece…I remember Jason’s picture being in the Siuslaw News. Unfortunately, I never got to meet him, but, from what you wrote, I can tell he was an AWESOME man! Thank you for sharing….

    • Thanks, Connie. Hopefully this gave you a chance to “meet him” in a different way — and yeah, he was an awesome guy whose presence is still felt by anyone who knew him 😉

  2. I had to fight tears as I read this. I’m truly sorry that you lost your treasured friend. I’m also happy that you were gifted with such a treasure.

  3. Your beautiful words rang so true regarding my own loss of a friend. When I drove past his house on the way home we would bark like dogs at each other. Who does that? Thank you.

  4. This is so great. It touches on the sights and sounds…and stomach conents…but has a balance. A nice tribute. 30 is still such a young age to go… 😦

  5. I don’t know if you’ve blogged this before or if I read it in your book, but it moved me (almost to tears) both times. What a rare and cherished friendship to have had. Simply beautiful.

    • Thank you, Susan. Truly.

      For the last three years, I’ve posted it here on the Friday the carnival arrives, as a tribute to my friend — and a chance to remind others never to take for granted those who matter most in your life.

  6. All the words I thought of saying here have already been said – but I can’t help repeating them. That was some beautiful writing, it did your friend honor.

  7. Beautifully written as always.
    If I’d had the time last year while I was in Oregon I would have loved to visit you.. you make our world a much more thoughtful one than we found it.

    • I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your kind words, Veronica. Thank you— truly. And if you are ever out this way again, let’s not miss that opportunity.

      • I definitely plan on returning, Oregon was, IS, one of the most beautiful places I have been to. And I’m not just saying that, simply stunning, especially the coast. The next opportunity will not be lost.

  8. I only knew Jason for a few months. After he had moved back to Florence. The first time we met was when I spent an evening with him at a mutual friends house for dinner. At the end of the evening in saying goodbye, he said “I think I just made a new friend” To me that sums him up perfectly.

  9. Thank you for sharing such a loving tribute Ned. Your loss becomes mine in the realization that I can never know the man of whom you write. If he was as you say then there can be little doubt that he lives on in you.

  10. Some people are so amazing that they only need a short time on earth to leave their mark. It’s not fair to the rest of us when they leave us, but we wouldn’t trade anything for the time we spent with them. You were a good friend to this man, Ned and he obviously left his mark on you. I’m sorry you didn’t have more time with him, but I’m sure he’s proud of the man you’ve become in your advancing age. Lol. Sorry, it was getting too sad in here and hey, we ain’t getting any younger my friend.

  11. My heart is broken for you, Ned. Knowing what I do about the kind of man you are and the emotion laid down in this beautiful memory, Jason must have been an incredible guy. I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend. You were both blessed to know one another.

    • Thank you, Sandy. As I was telling someone last night, I would rather have his friendship and miss him like I do, rather than never have missed him at all.

      He truly was a gift. To everyone.

  12. Pingback: This is what it looks like when bikers and flowers collide | Ned's Blog

No one is watching, I swear...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s