Last weekend, an old college friend of mine was hit by a car and left for dead in the road. He is now in the hospital with a severe brain injury and a very uncertain prognosis. He seems to be able to open his eyes and move at least some parts of his body, but anything beyond that is still in question. He could die. He could be severely disabled. He could recover and be OK. It is too early to tell. He undoubtedly faces a long, difficult struggle.
I haven't seen this guy in more than a decade. I hadn't thought about him, except that he friended me on facebook a few months ago, so I occasionally saw his status updates. When I first heard about this, I wasn't sure how to feel. Obviously, I thought it was terrible, but my initial reaction was kind of like when you see a news story about something awful happening to an innocent person. It's bad on a rational level, but on an emotional one, it's not connected to you. But as the days have worn on, I find myself obsessively checking his facebook page for updates, thinking about him day and night, wiping away tears at my desk at work.
I've started to have flashbacks to the nights I spent sitting around his desk in the back of our college newspaper office, basking in his glow. I struggle to describe him, other than to say he was larger-than-life, magnetic, self assured in the extreme. If anyone should be immortal, impervious, it should be him. He took pride in being hard-drinking, poorly groomed, unconcerned about what anyone thought. He was loud and brash, but also searingly smart and funny. He was exciting, even a little bit scary, because you never knew what he would do. He's the kind of person whose bad side you don't ever want to see, but when you are in his circle, you are illuminated by his wit and spontaneity. People were willing to work for his affection, and he made it worth their while.
Thinking about him leads me to thinking about all the close friends I had then, about all the joy and laughter and youthful naivete we shared, about the way they helped me find my place in this world. When I walked into my college newspaper office halfway through my junior year, I had been looking for a long time for a place where I fit. I found it with him, with all of them — and everything in my life since then, when I really think about it, has sprung from those relationships. Virtually all those people are lost to me. I haven't kept up with most of my old friends. My memories of our time together are fuzzy, or missing altogether. I can't even remember who I was then. And now he is lying in a coma.
I mourned for a long time after leaving college. I loved it there, and I didn't want to leave. I thought I had gotten over that grief that life would never again be as vibrant or joyful. But now I realize that I never did get over college; I just forgot how great it was. College was my time of no obligations and expansive possiblities, when I still believed I could do anything, when deep friendships came easily, when I could drink six beers without getting a hangover. I have never recaptured the kind of friendships I had in college, and I don't think I ever will. I also know my limitations far better than I did then. I know I don't have what it takes to achieve some of the things I once thought possible.
Of course, I know that things can't stay the same. I know that, in so many ways, my life is richer and more meaningful now. I am a better person now. I know who I am now. I have had so many wonderful experiences since then. I see all that. But I am taking some time to remember what was. To hope against hope that my old friend will get up from his hospital bed and be OK, and that maybe one day, we will all share a beer again and remember that our connections do endure, even through all these years.