We humans are a forgetful lot. This has always been true of us, but never more so than it is now, with our awareness obscured behind an obnoxious fog of techno bleeps, hashtags, “shares”, and “hey, look at this cute video of my cat!” Our small, addled minds are consumed by the gluttonous carnivore of modern media; it seems there is little room for anything lasting, for anything real.
When was the last time somebody said something to you that really stuck? When I say “stuck”, I mean, not that you thought it was relevant enough to tap into your Notes app, or catchy enough to Tweet and say Share if you agree! When was the last time you heard something so profound that, without the help of repetition – electronic or otherwise – the words of that person remained with you, and they became a part of you; they changed you?
At the age of seventeen, I was confused. I suppose there were a couple things I was quite clear on at the time – I loved to play music, and I loved this God guy who’d been living with me for all of my seventeen years. I was not a cool kid, nor did I fit in well with the deviant, Be cool by not being cool group. I received good grades, but school was boring, so I didn’t fit in with brainy types ; I was (still am) physically awkward and doomed to suck at sports. I didn’t know what in the world I was – just a freakishly tall kid trying to learn the bass guitar well enough to qualify for a speck of coolness. I figured, if you’re going to aim for cool, why not go for the motherload? Is there any brand of cool that exceeds musician cool?
There was this couple who started hanging out with the high school group at my church – Pat and Tonya were their names. I buddied up to Pat quickly; he was a killer drummer, which means he boosted the coolness level of any of his friends by a factor of ten, and I figured his boost was worth twice that on me, since I played bass – us rhythm section guys gotta stick together, you know. Tonya was also high on the coolness scale, due both to her matrimonial relationship with a kick-ass drummer, as well as her unquestionable ability to exchange verbal barbs with the most quick-witted of adversaries – a skill which attracts massive cred when you hang out with teenagers much of the time.
I don’t mind saying now that I found Tonya intimidating at first. I’d considered myself fast on my feet when it came to clever banter and sarcastic jabs, but Tonya proved far beyond my equal. She could cut me down to size in five seconds flat, then build me right back up with a glowing smile that seemed to say, “C’mon, we’re friends!”.
I was at a Summer retreat with our group when I heard Tonya say something that I still remember and think about now, twenty years later. I didn’t hear the words from Tonya directly; rather, I was told by another kid what she’d said. “Tonya says you’re a good guy.” the kid told me. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but understand the context – Tonya was the sort of adult I respected above most others, and it wasn’t just because she was smarter and cooler than most; it was more because of what she lacked – Tonya lacked bullshit. When a non-bullshitter calls you a “good guy” behind your back, it sticks with you. It may even change your life.
Tonya turns fifty today. I’ve not seen her in at least fifteen years, but I still think of her often. I heard some years ago she was diagnosed with MS. Tonya with MS – it sounds off to me – sorta like hearing that Superman has cancer. Of course, if Superman did have cancer, he’d still be Superman; he’d still be about truth and justice and love and sacrifice. I think Tonya now is still as much Tonya as she ever was; she’s still about love, not about bullshit. It takes something powerful to live beyond the body – beyond the abilities of your arms and legs, beyond the daily activities that you can or cannot do. It takes something powerful – something like heart. Fortunately, Tonya has heart in abundance.
Happy Birthday to my dear friend. This “good guy” thinks you are good as well. Thanks for what you’ve done for me and for many many others. I send this off now as something of a prayer for you; I hope it joins the chorus of other birthday prayers and makes a beautiful song for you this day.