As I write the clock is ticking toward the midnight hour, and I will have reached the half-century mark of living – age 50. For me, the milestone is significant but perhaps less so because my benchmark had always been 48; that was the age that my father passed away and for me a significant psychological milestone. I did not expect to reach 49 so, in many ways, April 22, 2009 is Independence Day. I feel freer tonight than I ever have and excited about what the future has in store.
I am sitting at my desk thinking about what this day means and how blessed I am to see it. While my life certainly has not been “no crystal stair,” there has been too much good to sweat the small stuff. Still, tonight I cannot help but think of my father and the fact that his life was cut so short. I was just twelve when he died so at the time 48 did not mean much, except now that I have crossed that threshold I realize just how young he was when cancer claimed his life.
Tonight my mind is also on a host a friends who left suddenly before they could claim much living. There was my friend Freddie Spencer, who was killed in a fire when we were in elementary school and whose smile and bright face I can still see when I close my eyes and transport myself back to the playground. I can’t help but think of my college friend Frank Reed; we came home together one weekend and he never returned to the campus. On the night we had planned to get together, I decided to stay home and he was killed in a car accident. I returned to Baltimore early not knowing he had been killed, only to be informed by his fraternity brothers on Monday when I asked if they had seen him. He was just weeks from receiving his degree. As I watch the clock tonight my thoughts are also on a college friend Glenn, the years have erased his last name; he was killed during a robbery at a McDonalds in Baltimore managed by one of my fraternity brothers. It seems just like yesterday racing to the restaurant from campus to see the maddening scene of police cars, helicopters and paramedics – only to be told several hours later that he had succumbed to a gunshot injury. I see my fraternity brother and close friend Joe Thompson, whose voice weakened by sickness I can still hear struggling to say my name over the telephone, and Johnny Garvin, who was killed coming home from work, his last night on a graveyard shift; his wife coming upon the accident scene as she traveled to work. Then there was Willie Mason and Gilbert Bond, two brothers who both passed away before age 40.
I guess what I am trying to convey is my recognition of the fact that, for whatever reason, God has seen fit to let me see this day. It weighs on me even more heavily given that just one month ago I escaped serious injury in a horrific car accident. When I stepped out of my car, which was totaled by a driver who ran a red light at an intersection, a sense of calm came over me. I remember looking back at the crumpled vehicle and saying to myself – not today. Looking back, I have carried that thought a lot. It is the reason I work the way I do; I have always felt as though I have to do right by a whole lot of people who did not get the chance.
Tonight though, I have to reclaim my life. For so many years, the intensity of my pursuits was because I felt a tremendous debt to all of those good friends who died so young. There were times when I felt guilty relaxing because an old picture or memory would make me feel awful about wasting time that they no longer had. So many days I would be exhausted and push an extra hour or two because none of them could. Words cannot describe the overwhelming feeling of helplessness of losing so many people, so young and then feeling responsible to live your life to validate their memories.
I know now that from this point on I have to let go. For whatever I have achieved, it has been conditional success. Truth be told, I have enjoyed few of what many might consider highlights in my life because, once achieved, I returned to watching the clock, fearful that I was wasting time and stealing from my dad, Freddie, Frank, Glenn, Joe, Johnny, Willie, Gilbert and others whose time ran out early. I hope they understand that I have done my best but I have to find out what I can really do with my life, without conditions or feelings of guilt for having outlived them. I think they will because each of them was good people and know how much I truly cared for them.
It’s 11:41. I thank God for my life. My past was simply a practice run for I feel my future is brighter than my yesterdays. It’s time to get busy. I look forward to 50. I am free.