It was February 29th, 2020. I received a call from an old bandmate, who now lived in Edmonton. He used to be the lead singer in a band I had formed with friends, over 20 years before that. I hadn’t really seem him in quite a few years, so I was interested to find out how he was doing. My voice was excited as I asked him what was going on. My voice did not stay excited for long.
Sean was gone. Taken by pneumonia.
I met Sean in grade school, when I was about 12 or 13. We were in different school programs, so we didn’t have the same classes but we had both been identified for a gifted program in our school so we got pulled out of our classes about once a week or so into a group. We didn’t really hang out and I didn’t really know much about him or the other kids from the other streams.
That all changed when I went to high school. You see, our local high schools didn’t offer anything like a gifted program. The closest one was in another area of the east end of Ottawa. So, the group of us who had been in grade school together and in that same elementary gifted program suddenly found ourselves amongst 2000 kids in a school in a new neighbourhood. Most of these other kids had established relationships from previous years and stuck together. Similarly, we naturally grouped up since we had some sort of common background. That initial bond faded for most of us, but there were three of those grade school gifted program kids that stuck together.
One was me. One was a kid named Doug, who in later years would stand with me at my wedding. And the third, was Sean. Sean and I held a friendship that lasted for over 25 years.
Until that call.
Back when we were in high school, I was the tall, lanky, nerd. Doug was the shorter nerd who could draw amazingly well. Sean? He was “the cool guy”. He made sure his hair was just so. He wore the right clothes, made the right friends, listened to the “right music”, got the girls, but also was willing to be strange and nerdy with his nerdy friends.
It seemed like we had little in common, so after all these years I still don’t understand what kept him close to us in our nerd circle. For whatever reason, we clicked. We didn’t agree on a lot of things, but we always had good laughs, had fun times, and looked out for each other.
Soon after our high school friendship began, a boy named John reached out to hang out with us. I count John as one of my dearest friends today, but I’ll talk about that great man another time. The four of us spent a lot of time together, but one thing we learned over the years was that Sean and John had something special. They were able to be closer friends than the rest of us, yet also could clash. Big personalities that filled the room and energized all around them.
I remember John driving us around in his car, for hours, slowly circling neighbourhoods, listening to music, and talking until the wee hours of the morning about whatever we thought were the most important things in life at the time. Stuff that, looking back on it, mattered very little. What about high school really does in the long term? Those moments were never about what was happening, but about the relationships we were building together, the shared moments.
Things like playing Starcraft together over at Doug’s house, or yelling about the Blood Splootch in some Xmen board game, or getting into guitar, Blues, and Scotch together as we got older. Lots of differences, but we built these shared experiences together.
When high school was over, and we couldn’t spend every day together anymore, John and Sean were definitely the ones who kept in touch the best. I wish I had done what John had over those years. Sean and I were tight for a few years in a band together, and we started at the same university immediately after high school, but once Sean moved to Edmonton I only saw him occasionally. We each built out our own lives and careers. Years passed, but every time we saw each other it was like no time had passed. It came back so easily for us.
We all danced at my wedding. The four of us gathered again for his. The occasional boys trip. Moments that I treasure. So many moments.
Kids do dumb things
Sometimes Sean would come over which meant we’d ride the bus home together from school. On my particular bus was a clown. I do not mean somebody who was funny. This kid was just a total jerk. Always was. For whatever reason, he decided to pick a fight with me that day. Just do whatever it took. The words got a little bad, but the most annoying thing for this clown was something he didn’t know: I don’t fight.
I’ve thrown a single punch in my life. It was terrible, it was stupid, and it was while trying to protect my younger brother from a bully. I held no thought to the fact I weighed 90 pounds, was standing on ice, and was punching with a mitt into a snow jacket that was probably 4 inches thick. I might as well have been tickling a pillow. My butt wound up on the ice because I didn’t know how to balance on ice when you swing at somebody’s belly. I probably would have fallen on solid ground too. But at least it was so hilarious to the bullies that they took off and left my brother alone.
So I don’t fight: it’s not me. Which frustrated this clown to no end. It just kept going and I kept ignoring it, or at least verbally deflecting. Sean had enough. We all got off at the next stop. Sean had decided this guy wasn’t going to treat his friend that way.
Did I mention Sean had a temper? Oh, yeah. We sometimes talked about how he would bottle up this big black ball inside and sometimes it had to come out and couldn’t be kept in anymore. Or he’d try to drink it down when he was older. Pot, scotch, beer… it did actually become a problem sometimes. Sean had feelings that it seemed he had a tough time handling. Maybe that’s why he looked for these other things. It was something I wish we’d talked about more.
So anyway, there we were. A few scrawny kids standing on a corner in the suburbs. Watching two other kids squaring off. A few swings and it was done. One solid hit and the kid had enough. We wandered off on foot, I don’t really remember what we got up to. I think we went to visit Doug’s house to play some games? What I do remember is my friend standing up for his nerdy buddy who was getting picked on.
Chillin’ on the Patio
Probably some of the most fun times we had were learning to be in a band together. Soul Harvest was not great, we wrote some stuff, we had fun, we played a few gigs. Sean and I loved writing music together, it always seemed to come out better together.
He wanted to do hard music, I wanted to do folksy/pop music. The two somehow blended together quite nicely when we ran ideas past each other and jammed together. He had a great voice, but preferred to play guitar in those days. He went on to become a great vocalist in Edmonton for some metal bands. Not my kind of thing, but it definitely fit him better than our odd mish-mash of stuff.
One of the songs he penned with me tried to capture some of the memories that our group had together. The chorus was the part that captured some of our challenge as growing young folks dealing with adulting and friendships that were changing in their nature.
Hey my friend,
You can have my beer there’s not much left to go.
Cuz the memories of school and girls and trends
Ain’t the same as the ones we used to know.
Asleep in the mountains
Years later, I visited Sean out in Edmonton. We went on a road trip to visit his grandmother in Cranbrook, via Calgary and drove through the mountains. It was beautiful. We talked so much about all kinds of things. However, we were not being very smart. Half-way through the mountains, we realized we didn’t have enough fuel to make it to the other side.
And apparently gas stations are few and far between.
We reached some tourist stop in the evening, a gas station right there by the road… closed.
We were going to have to wait for it to open in the morning. So that meant sleeping in the car overnight. Just two guys both over 6 feet tall, sleeping in a subcompact in the front seats. COMFY!
But I remember little about that trip other than that moment. If that had not have happened, would that whole trip have disappeared from my mind? Would another moment with Sean be gone?
Heading down south
More recently, for Sean’s 40th, we did a surprise road trip. Starting in Chicago, a group of us drove south, visiting Nashville, Memphis, and whatever we could hit along the way. We stayed at Airbnbs, hotels, whatever we could find. Again, on the road together. Listening to music, talking about stupid stuff… I’ll never know if Sean enjoyed it, but I know that I missed having that long hang out time with my friend. Good music, good food, doing things together. Checking out some random car show on the side of the road in some small town because we decided to avoid the highway between stops.
I missed chances then, as at others, to really connect the way I should. It’s always the looking back where you realize how many times you should have been honest. Honest and vulnerable enough to let somebody know how you feel.
The final visit
In the months before “that call”, things were not going great for Sean. I didn’t have all the details, but I didn’t need to know everything to know things were really bad. He came back to Ottawa for a long visit. I was really busy with life in general and I didn’t make time to really see him a bunch, but I had an opportunity to have him join me for a road trip to a Sitecore User Group in Montreal. We drove to Montreal that evening, and drove back. We had 5 or 6 hours to just talk. About so many things. We caught up on stuff. We talked about how things were going back in Edmonton. His lost job. His marriage. Having to potentially plan a move.
But we also talked about what he wanted to do with his career going forward. We talked about me being a dad. We talked about gender identities and struggling with how to raise a kid to be open about people and who they were. We talked about politics, intolerance, the general divide that was happening between people. It was the most we had really connected in years.
It always seems to be about the road. Why was that? Are those moments together why I like just going for drives, even on my own, with music playing? Or is it because we all liked going for drives that we made those moments?
After that road trip night, I saw Sean briefly a few times more during his stay in Ottawa. Once for a breakfast meetup at some local diner, and another time just for a short drive over to see John. This is the last photo I’ll ever have of him, and was the last time I would ever see him.
My wife took this photo. On Sean’s birthday she had it printed on steel and gifted it to both John and me. I have it in front of me every day in my office.
Over the next weeks Sean and I texted a few times here and there. Me checking in on his job hunt. Him asking how my wife and the kids were doing. He had been doing some interviews, was about to get his career going again. It seemed like a plan was forming, and he wasn’t going to have to come back to Ottawa after all. I realized I had started looking forward to him being back. Looking forward to the thought of spending more time with my friend. The conversations we would have.
For whatever reason, I finally took the time to actually tell him that. On February 22nd, at 11:59pm, I received this text back from him:
“As an aside, just hearing you say that you were looking forward to me coming home, even if the circumstances weren’t great, means a hell of a lot. I miss you too my friend.”
This was the last time I heard from Sean.
A week later
The call came in. I did what I always do in a crisis. I went into execution mode. Shut down all emotion, find an action, determine dependencies, get things done.
Since I was in Ottawa, I had been asked to talk to his parents. Face to face.
My family needed to be somewhere else, I had to get that done first.
As I held my wife in my arms, who was crying as I filled her in, I thought about why I wasn’t crying. No time for that, I guess. Needed to get folks out the door. Execution mode, and all that. Cling to the tasks at hand.
As we started out, the van’s audio system started playing James Taylor. Sean always made fun of me for listening to James Taylor, music that had played so often in my home growing up. So “soft”. I don’t actually listen to James Taylor that often, so the fact it came on was extremely strange. The song was Fire and Rain. How appropriate.
Just yesterday mornin', they let me know you were gone
Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you
I walked out this morning and I wrote down this song
I just can't remember who to send it to
I've seen fire and I've seen rain
I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I'd see you again
Like I said: How appropriate.
But there was no time for tears. I needed to get to that other door. The one with his mum and dad.
How do I do this?
Once alone, my brain had time to process the next task. How was I going to tell his parents? Tell them that the son that had lived with them for 6 weeks over Christmas and they had said goodbye to just the month before was now gone? That they had outlived their youngest? I ran the scenario. I ran it again. I ran it again.
I rang the doorbell. There was a delay.
I don’t remember if I knocked again, or rang again, or just waited. But the door opened eventually.
In the end, my worrying didn’t matter. I knew by the look on the face of Sean’s dad that he had already heard. Their phone had rung not too long ago, while I was driving over. My visit was not long, but long enough that my initial shutdown was starting to fade.
On my way back to my family, on the highway, tears finally came. They are the only tears I have cried so far for my friend.
The pandemic hit. Still no funeral or wake to this date. Time goes by, the world keeps turning. We lock down and stay away from our friends and family. Millions more people pass away. People lose family, never seeing them.
And I miss my friend. A man who didn’t believe in what I believe in, but was open to understand other points of view. A man whose musical taste overlapped but also diverged greatly from my own. A man who tried to get people riled up for no good reason. A man who stood by his friends.
Goodbye my friend.