I never graduated from college. Like so many others who begin the collegiate journey, I was waylaid from graduating by lack of discipline and then by life itself, and it still remains one of the “to do’s” on my still-growing list of life’s accomplishments and adventures. What I did get, however, from my days at Eastern New Mexico University, in Portales, New Mexico, was a motley group of friends that, although miles and years separate us, remain dear to me.
They live in a velvety, jewelry boxed corner of my memory, opened up once in a while and savored silently when I am alone — enjoying a glass of wine, or riding my horse through the woods, or sitting staring into space, open book on my lap, unread. In my mind these friends are forever young and still free in a way that only the young really are. We were untested, hopelessly optimistic, and unaware of the disappointments and sorrows life can bring.
We were impossibly bright stars in a limitless universe, listening to Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen and trying to scrounge up money for beer while we lounged on ripped couches and offered endless support to one another. My jewelry box is full of these friends – these stars of mine. And now, one of them is missing.
Today I got a Facebook message from a dear old friend, who had stumbled on an old message I had written to him several years ago, undiscovered by him until today. In his reply, he let me know that his brother, and a close companion of mine during those college days, had passed away years ago, in 2000. I hadn’t even known, all these years, as we had all lost touch after school. I hadn’t known that Jeff Brubaker was gone.
Jeff was an Iowa farm boy. Handsome, strong, with dimples and a shining gold front tooth, he was my close friend and confidant, making me feel unique, and special, in the way that a good friend does. He gave me a rose one Valentine’s Day when I had no Valentine of my own, with a blank card. When I looked at him, eyebrows raised, blank card outstretched, he simply said, “Words cannot express.” (I teased him – he had just forgotten to fill it out.)
We had a bet about who would marry first, and we decided that whoever did owed the other a whole keg of beer (back then that was like promising to buy someone a car, it was so out of reach financially). He loved George Thorogood, Iowa, rugby, friends, cold beer, and his family – although not in that order. His brother John, one of my best friends, was his special interest – John was always (sometimes secretly) watched over by a big brother that delighted in his little brother’s sense of humor and easy popularity.
Jeff had an innate wildness that prompted deep understanding, I always felt. Far from having his life planned out, back then he never knew what was next. He was the only one to whom I could say: “Do you ever feel like a guest on the planet, while everyone else lives here?” He understood when I said things like that. His blue eyes could have widened in shock, but instead they crinkled in recognition, and I knew my loneliness would pass.
The last thing Jeff ever said to me was, “So, you are okay if I leave you alone?” He had driven me home from the airport, and had to get back to his home and job a few hours away. I can still see his curls and his smile and his kindness, his hand on the door.
It turned out I was okay, Jeff. I got married and had kids, and have seen most dreams realized. I’d like to say to Jeff’s family, thank you. Thank you for sharing a man that was one of the brightest of all us stars, twinkling brightly against an unknown future, holding it off for just a year or two more. How he loved you all.
I’ll end with a story that says it all about Jeff, to me. Jeff lived in a house near some railroad tracks in our dusty college town and they were known to have a party or two at this house. One night, my girlfriend Darlene and I wandered down to look at a parked freight train and we ending up climbing on top of the couplings that connect the train cars. Well, that old midnight train started moving, and Darlene jumped off right away. I became frightened as the ground rolled by quicker and quicker, and suddenly Jeff was beside me – a knight, a superhero, a guardian angel – his large warm hand on my shoulder. “Jump!” he yelled, and pushed me off the moving train, and into the dirt. I landed hard, and he landed beside me a moment later. I might not be here today if the young man that pretended to be so free had not cared so much for those he loved.
Tonight, I imagine that young Jeff on the brink of adult life staying on that midnight train, and riding it into a welcoming Heaven full of real stars, and the peace he was looking for when I knew him. Jeff, you were bad to the bone, and good to the core. Goodbye, sweet friend. And thank you, thank you – for everything.
Deirdre Reilly has written one humor book, and authored a syndicated family life column for Gatehouse Media for 13 years. She has won a Massachusetts Press Award for humor, her op-eds have been published in the Boston Herald and The Hartford Courant, and she has had short fiction published in literary journals. Deirdre was raised in Columbia, Md., and now lives outside Boston, Ma. She enjoys outdoor pursuits, and is obsessed with the care and happiness of a retired carriage horse named Nello that she bought for a few hundred dollars on a menopausal whim.