(Each May, as I welcome the special piece of Americana that is our town’s annual Rhododendron Festival, it also reminds me of saying goodbye to a best friend. As a tribute to him and the impact our friendship had — and continues to have — on my life, I post this every year when I see the first pieces of the Ferris wheel come together…)
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 — rocket ships, 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 draped 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 trailer 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 occurred 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…
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.