Reflecting on the Brief, Yet Bright Life of a Childhood Friend

Detail of sandbox with toys
Detail of sandbox with toys (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The loss of life at the Boston Marathon terrorist attack has me reflecting on my first experience with loss. His name was Timmy, and like the eight year old boy at the Boston Marathon, his life ended way too soon.

Timmy was my childhood friend. He was the brown-haired little boy who lived across the street. He was the boy with the sandbox, the biggest, coolest sandbox in the neighborhood. I ventured into his backyard every chance I got, not only to play in the sandbox but to spend time with him. There was something special about him. He had an energy about him that, to this day, has me wondering if some people light up the lives of others so brightly that their own light burns out prematurely. At least, that is the way I remember Timmy.

I didn’t even know he was sick until he died. As I recall it was leukemia (a strange new word for me then) that claimed his life. I’m sure his body had shown the effects of the disease but that’s not how I remember him. I suppose children have an innate ability for seeing straight through to the soul of people, bypassing the exterior and all the stereotypes that come with it. They haven’t developed the prejudices that inevitably come later in life. All they see is a friend, no ethnicity, no religious affiliation, no political viewpoint, and no disease; just a friend.

The world, my little world as I knew it then, fell off its axis when I learned he had died. It stopped spinning and my mind picked up where it left off as thoughts churned in my head. How could he possibly be gone? I had just played with him. He was only four. Only the elderly die and they die peacefully, in their sleep after a long and eventful life; a life well lived. Don’t they? Isn’t that how it works? How could one possibly cram all that living into just four years? It didn’t seem fair.

That is when I learned that life is not fair, that we’ll all experience, to some degree, heartbreak and tragedy. If Timmy could die at such a young age, what about the other people I loved? My parents had to reassure me that they weren’t going anywhere, anytime soon. But how could they possibly know? They couldn’t.

I cut out Timmy’s obituary from the newspaper and placed it under my pillow. As I lay in bed that night I worried about my family. I worried about my friends. I worried about all the other unforeseen events that could happen in this frightening new world. But most of all, I missed my friend. I just wanted to go to the sandbox and play with him. How could I have known I would never see him again? Eventually, I cried myself to sleep.

My parents didn’t allow me to go to the funeral. I’m not even sure that I knew enough to ask to go to it. They said his casket (another new word for me) matched the French Provincial style of my bedroom furniture. I suppose they hoped it would give some sort of comfort or allow me to feel that I had somehow been a part of the funeral by knowing that.

I went to the sandbox after Timmy died. Other friends from the neighborhood had gathered to play. His little sister, barely able to walk and talk, kept asking, “Where’s Timmy?” Someone spoke up and said, “He died.” I’m certain they didn’t know exactly what that meant since I was struggling to grasp the meaning of it myself. I remember seeing his mother wipe away tears as she looked on. I’ve often wondered how difficult it must have been for her to see life go on as usual, as if Timmy had never existed. I’m sure it must have looked that way but I was profoundly affected by his death.

The question that his little sister asked has stayed with me my entire life. What happens to us when we die? My faith tells me that this life is like a hallway or perhaps just a doorway for someone like Timmy. It is something we must all pass through to reach a place more beautiful than we can ever imagine. It is a place where the heartbreak of losing someone is replaced by the joy of seeing them again.

I don’t remember if Timmy’s family moved away or if I just stopped going to the sandbox. It just wasn’t the same. The light that burned so bright and beckoned me to play was gone. Timmy wasn’t there.

Where’s Timmy? Some day I’ll know.