His name was Randy. He was and still is, despite his far-too early death, a beloved classmate. He was positivity personified, and he always had a smile for everyone.
From second grade through sixth grade, he was my neighbor.
However, we never spoke during that time. Not once that I recall. My brother was the same age as his younger brother, Kevin. There were probably a total of a dozen of us kids in the immediate neighborhood and I would play hide-and-go-seek, baseball, climb trees, and ride bikes with all of them, but Randy never played with us. Instead, he was always alone with his basketball: dribbling, spinning, jumping and sinking, or tossing from afar.
He would play for hours at a time. By himself. Once in a while, in the evening, he and his father, John, would play one-on-one. There was always a lot of laughter then and John, who was far taller, appeared to block a good number of throws. But Randy would find ways to skirt around his father and sink the ball with a layup.
I could see Randy playing from my bedroom window, when I was sitting in the yard reading, or when I was roller skating, usually by myself and on the only sidewalk in the neighborhood that ran across one long yard, located on the opposite side of Randy’s house. It appeared he was as much a loner as I, if not more so.
When my family moved away from the neighborhood, as he and I were entering sixth grade or middle school as it was called then, I don’t recall seeing Randy again until high school. By then, he was as tall as his father, a thinner version, and all arms and legs. He played basketball and became one of the best players the school ever had. Naturally, he hung out with other basketball players, all equally tall and equally enthusiastic about the sport.
I was quiet, never talking with others in the halls but always thinking about the next class, making sure I had my books, my homework, and such. It wasn’t in my nature to talk to anyone unless they spoke to me first, and even though I would walk by this group of players every day, words were never exchanged. Plus, I rarely attended extra-curriculum school events. I was shy. Extremely shy.
Time passed. We graduated. More time passed. Our class held a few class reunions, some I helped organize, some I didn’t. I moved away and then returned to the area. I had become more outgoing and found it easier to start conversations with people, strangers or not. It was during that time, that reunion, that I had a chance to chat with Randy and his first words seeing me, accompanied with that infectious grin of his, were, “Hi, neighbor.”
Every reunion thereafter, he greeted me the same way. “Hi, neighbor.”
And then he became sick, but he never missed a reunion. He attended one with a cane. The next time was with crutches. His smile never changed regardless of his declining health.
October 4, 2012
And then he died. I saw the obituary and wasn’t able to attend his Celebration of Life that a number of our classmates attended, but I thought about him that entire weekend.
A few months passed.
As was my habit, I came home from work, had dinner, then came into my living room combination office, and turned the knob on my floor lamp, to turn it on.
The knob always required a hard twist, as it was stiff and didn’t turn easily.
This night, though, the knob turned easily, too easily. In fact, the light wouldn’t stay on. I puzzled over the problem. No one had been in the apartment. No one other than me was using the lamp, so what was different?
Carefully, I twisted the knob to on, finally getting the light to come on, and I started to step away. The light went out. Over and over, I tried to get the light to stay on. And every time I had it on and would start to move away, it would go out. The knob was so loose, it was difficult to find that small range where the light would even come on, as I could spin it back and forth easily trying to search that perfect on position, where the light would say on.
For several nights, this scenario played out. After about ten minutes, my frustration got the better of me. I started swearing. I couldn’t get the light to stay on, no matter what I did.
And then I heard him. His laugh. And the word, “neighbor.”
“You think this is funny, don’t you?”
I could feel his grin. “Yes!” he responded.
“Okay, you can stay but stop playing with my lamp.” I reached up to try to turn the light on and discovered that the hard familiar twist had returned. I tested it several times. On and off. On and off. Each time, I had to twist the knob hard. (And ever since, the knob has never changed from this hard twist.)
“Thank you,” I told him, but he was gone. I couldn’t sense him around anymore. He’d had his fun and I sensed he was off to have fun with someone else, somewhere else.
Move ahead to July 2014—class reunion weekend
As typical of our reunions, we have both a Friday night casual get-together and a more formal reunion on Saturday night with dinner and a band. For the first time, I attended the Friday night casual get-together. I had a chance to chat with Roger, a great friend of Randy’s, along with being a former basketball player with him. During previous reunions, if I saw Randy, Roger was always right there beside him. On that night, I felt Randy was there, having a grand time seeing so many of the coaches and teachers who were in attendance.
After I dropped off my high school best friend, I drove home thinking about the conversations, the people I had seen, many of whom wouldn’t be in attendance the next evening.
Then, I sensed a presence with me in the car. I heard, “Tell him.”
“Tell Roger, this and whitey.”
I couldn’t make out what the this word was, but I saw Randy’s fists together and then moving away from each other. He kept repeating the motion, but I couldn’t understand what the word was.
Randy relayed a number to me, too, what sounded like 6 or 16. I couldn’t tell which. I wanted to look in our old yearbooks to see Randy’s basketball shirt had been numbered, but since I had destroyed my books years ago, my curiosity would have to wait.
“Tell him! He’ll know that it’s me. That I’m here.”
A long time ago, not having given Kathy’s husband a message she wanted delivered, I had vowed never to not give someone a message being delivered from someone on the other side, no matter how silly or ridiculous it could make me appear.
The next night, Saturday, I saw Roger sitting at a table, alone at the moment, so I joined him. I told him I had a message to give him, from another classmate, but I didn’t say who.
“I’m supposed to tell you this”—I started making the motion with my fists pulling away from each other and returning and being pulled away again, over and over—“and whitey.” As I kept making the hand motions, I explained, “I can’t think of the word, what the word is supposed to be.”
Roger said, “Stretch?”
“Yes!” I said excitedly. I knew without a doubt that stretch was the correct word. It still didn’t make sense to me, but I knew it to be right. I knew because I could feel Randy’s grin—big and broader than ever before.
“Who is this message coming from?” he asked.
He looked at me, both puzzled and in wonderment.
“Why? What does stretch mean to you?”
“That was his nickname. We called him Stretch.”
“So what does whitey mean?”
“That’s what they call me back at Madison, where I teach and coached basketball.” We just looked at each other.
“He’s here. He’s here with you,” I told him. “The message was for you.”
We talked about the numbers, but Roger couldn’t remember what Randy’s jersey number had been back in high school. He said he would look in his yearbooks, but I’ve not heard, nor could I pull up any pictures of Randy playing, where the jersey number is visible, at least visible enough to read. I’m not sure if I’ll ever know what these numbers meant to Randy, to Roger, but at this point, it doesn’t matter.
I’d been given a message to transmit, and I had. Roger admitted he hadn’t been much of a believer of the beyond, but now I’d given him a lot to think about.
Once I was driving home alone, I sensed Randy was with me. Again, I could tell he was happy knowing that Roger knew that he, Randy, had attempted communication and that they were at the reunion, together again.