Yesterday I posted about an old friend of mine from high school who I haven’t seen in decades, Julie Forte Solleder, who unexpectedly passed away. Julie was a gem, and she’ll be terribly missed. The people who commented on my post included other folks from high school, some of who were in the marching band with Julie and me. It was good to hear from them all, and helped me understand with greater clarity that as much as I struggled during those years, I wasn’t the only one. It occurred to me that there were actually quite a lot of people whose mere presence helped me, if only because they were visibly kind and decent people, and of course I forgot to mention more than one genuine friend.
Then later in the day I got a Facebook friend request and a Twitter follower from a particular old friend, someone who I actually didn’t think I was still friends with. Chris Eliopoulos and I were both artists in high school, with a mutual fanaticism for the world of comic books and their creators (John Byrne was our idol). Our friendship stumbled to a halt after he graduated high school due to communication breakdowns, mutual insecurity, and a mutual unawareness of the struggles we were each going through. I’d buried the memory of how much his friendship had meant to me but part of me still remembered, because a few years ago I saw his name while doing research for my debut novel, and I Googled him to see what roads he’d traveled.
Unlike me, Chris went on to pursue a career in art, specifically illustration, and I was wonderstruck to see that he’d become the grand poo-bah of lettering at Marvel Comics, the Eisner-nominated creator of a hilarious series of one-offs starring Fantastic Four offspring Franklin Richards, and the writer and/or illustrator of a broad swath of print and web comics like Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers, Misery Loves Sherman, Desperate Times, and Cow Boy. If you read the rights report in last week’s edition of PW Children’s Bookshelf, you know that he’s now a children’s book illustrator as well (for Brad Meltzer’s Ordinary People Change the World PB series, to be published by Dial).
He’d done it, you know? He’d snared the brass ring. And still I was afraid to contact him, because that absurd, decades-old fear stayed with me: “he’s moved on to bigger and better things; I couldn’t possibly be of interest to him anymore.” HE never said that – it turns out he thought and felt quite the opposite, in fact – but I’d believed it for so long that I just went back down that mental spiral on autopilot.
Then I read Chris’s Twitter feed, which included a moving series of grief-stricken thoughts about our departed friend Julie, and he said something about how it was too late to thank her for being his friend. I realized how right he was. Chris had given me a way to re-engage with him: there was still time to thank him for helping me through the hard times so many years ago, so I mustered my courage and did it.
Chris responded in kind. We talked (well, we tweeted and emailed). And an incredible wave of memories flooded my mind: playing tiny souvenir harmonicas on the bus during a band trip to Nashville; another band trip into Manhattan when a crusty New Yorker on the subway asked if I was on drugs because I couldn’t decide where to sit; reading my brother’s copies of X-Men and Alpha Flight to tatters in the basement of my parents’ home in Hillsdale; Chris’s furious (and possibly unsanctioned) drum solo during a jazz band concert; our very stylized use of the word “buddy”; hastily comparing superhero sketches in the gap between the end of school and the beginning of band practice; strapping those ridiculous giant Q-tip hats on in the band room before home games; and so much more.
Chris and I discovered we can still be friends. Julie’s gone, and Chris and I (along with everyone who shared the gift of Julie’s friendship) will continue to mourn her. But maybe this was a final gift to two of her old comrades from our days in the PVHS marching band. Is it silly to think that? Maybe, but it’s comforting too. I remembered that high school wasn’t all anguish and despair – there were people worth cherishing, and moments worth remembering. A day filled with horrifying pain and rage for so many people also included something truly wonderful for me, and it was good to remember that unexpectedly wonderful things are still happening, every day, every hour, every second. The universe took one old friend away, but gave back another, and I’m so grateful.