Right now, I’m preparing for a life remembrance party – I’m thinking of it as a wake without the alcohol – for my best friend of the last two decades, Alan Lickiss. I’m not prepared – this shouldn’t be happening yet – but it did get me thinking about why he was my best friend.
I’ve always been a bit of a loner, different than most of the people around me – even my family – but I’ve always been blessed to find one person who “got” me in a way that made me feel like we were family, that made me feel less alone. Since the day I met him – December 1992, if I remember correctly – Alan was that friend. It didn’t take long until he was my best friend (well, except for my wife, Sarah), and I don’t use that term lightly. For me, my best friend was that one person who made me feel as if I could still soldier on even if I didn’t have any other friends. Unlike high school cliques, though, there was always just one best friend. Maybe I’m just too literal, but that was the way it was.
There were only a handful of people who touched me this way. The first was Ruth Ann Rousseau, in Cumberland, MD, in kindergarten; she moved away before we also moved away when I was in the 3rd grade. In elementary school in Stow, OH, it was Mike Chrisman, who moved south a few years later. For most of high school, it was Vivian Williamson, whose entire family was my rock for the inevitably tumultuous times adolescence throws at you. I don’t actually remember when I met Viv, but I remember bonding after her father’s funeral.
As an adult, married with children, in Colorado Springs, CO, my best friend was Alan Lickiss. I’d come to the Springs for a contractor job at MCI, in their brand-new facility overlooking Garden of the Gods, and I mistakenly took a cube that was supposed to be for employees. Shortly thereafter, we were moved to 2-person contractor cubes and some relocated employees moved into our old cubes. Alan moved into mine. At some point, we were introduced, and the first words I said to him were, “So you’re the person who stole my cube.” I don’t remember his exact response, but it was instant, something like, “Actually, I believe you stole my cube, but thanks for keeping it warm.”
I knew at that moment I’d found my best friend, but this one would be different. I sometimes wonder what happened to Ruth Ann and Mike; I reconnected with Vivian on Facebook years ago. But I couldn’t conceive of any situation where Alan wouldn’t be my best friend any more. If one of us moved away, there was always technology. We would keep in touch, because we were like brothers.
Over the years, both of our families grew and we were always there for each other, in good times and bad. When I bought a convertible and just wanted to go out into the sunshine for a while, Alan and I would take “topless lunches” to pick up some fast food. When Alan bought a car in Denver, we went with him to pick it up and drive it home. Despite different faiths, our kids’ baptisms were attended by both families. When we joined a writer’s group, we did it together; when we decided to find another, we formed our own with Sarah and Alan’s wife, Becky. When we moved to Manitou Springs and discovered the 4th of July fireworks show was so close to our house that we could carry on shouted conversations with the guys setting off the fireworks, we invited Alan’s family to share it with us. When our kids wore particularly cool Halloween outfits, we took them to Alan’s neighborhood to trick-or-treat with his kids. When I drove cross-country from VA after 9/11, Alan offered to pick me up in Kansas and drive me home the rest of the way. When we were both out of work, we shared job leads. Alan got me the introduction I needed to interview for the job I’ve had for the last 12 years.
A few years ago, Alan was diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and there were a few hospital stays along the way. I visited him often during those stays, and took on the responsibility for reporting his progress on his Facebook page, to take some of that burden from his family. I knew he’d have done the same for me. Sometimes we just talked; sometimes I just sat and held his hand. He always went out of his way to tell me what a great friend I was, probably sensing my frustration, not knowing what more I could do for him. Some of those visits shook me to the core, especially when he’d gotten skeletally thin early this year, but I knew he’d get stronger, get home and get back to being more like himself again. He always did, and he did after that visit, too. The last time I saw him in the hospital, he was complaining that, for two weeks the nurses didn’t care if he ate anything, but now they were constantly trying to get him to eat. I remember thinking that they’d given up on him at first, and changed their minds once they realized he wasn’t giving up on himself.
It was pure Alan, that determination. He was going out on his own terms, and he wasn’t ready yet.
A few weeks ago, he went back to the hospital. This time was atypical. I didn’t find out he’d gone back until a few days afterward. It was only a week before our travel to a conference in TN, which I considered canceling, but didn’t. Becky said he was on so much morphine that she didn’t think he knew when she was there, so I didn’t see him during the week, as I put in extra hours so I could get off earlier on Friday to visit him. I didn’t know he changed hospitals, so I didn’t end up having the time to see him before leaving on a 6:30 am flight Saturday. I apologized to Becky for missing him and promised to visit Alan Thursday – today – as soon as we returned. As we boarded the plane in the morning, I didn’t feel much like the great friend he kept saying I was.
We got the news of his passing shortly after we arrived in TN, before the conference actually started; it darkened our moods that night, but another friend convinced me not to let it continue through the conference. Alan wouldn’t have wanted that. He would have loved the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop – imagine a think tank of physicists actually creating solutions to make interstellar space travel a reality; Alan wouldn’t have wanted to be an impediment to that noble cause, not even in death, so I didn’t let that happen.
Now that the conference is over, I can grieve for my best friend. It starts with his life remembrance party today, but I doubt it ever ends. I will take the best of what was Alan and try to use those memories to patch holes in my life, the same way he’s done it for 22 years. I will remember Alan at each and every literary convention or conference I attend, especially Mile Hi Con, which he particularly loved (and attended this year). To my remaining friends and new friends to come, I will try to be the kind of friend Alan was to me. He will not be forgotten.
Frankly, I don’t know if I’ll ever find another best friend; if I do, I’ll be grateful to be blessed again, but if not, that’s okay, too. Alan was my best best friend, in a way that transcends time, space and even death. He’ll always be with me in my thoughts, encouraging me, telling me when I’ve stepped over the line, laughing in that full-body way of his, telling me I’m a great friend even when I don’t feel like it.
Isn’t that a best friend, after all?