On a gray Tuesday afternoon I stood, flower in my lapel, staring at the American flag with my brothers at my side, listening silently to the strains of “Taps” as we paid tribute to an American hero. This flag was draped, not flying, and was eventually carefully folded and handed to Bob’s daughter, who has known the grief of losing both her brothers and her father within a year. Her quiet dignity and more, her joy at knowing her father’s life was well lived, buoyed us all.
Since I only got to know Bob in his 70’s, I really never pictured him as anything but older. So I was taken aback by pictures of a strapping pilot who was flying in the Army Air Corps while he was still a teenager. I had heard the stories at barbecues and gatherings; Bob escorted bombers over the Alps from Italy into Germany. My brother Pat, who helped eulogize him, told of Bob’s bearing down to strafe a Nazi supply train only to have the top of a freight car open and reveal flak guns trained directly on him. After several creative approaches, he realized that keeping the plane in one piece and himself alive were probably in the best interest of the Army Air Corps.
Because he did, he lived to be my father’s best friend over the last 20 years. They met at the YMCA when my dad began working out regularly after my mom’s death, and they struck up a friendship that sustained them both for two decades. This included weekly lunches at the Mason Jar, perhaps as much to talk to the waitresses as to eat a meal. But they were a connection with someone who understood—what it was to fight a war where your buddies didn’t come home, but you did; what it was to lose the love of a lifetime and have to point yourself toward some other useful goal in life; what it was to grow old and fend off watchful kids who wanted you safe more than they wanted you happy.
I don’t think I talked to my dad in the last number of years without asking how Bob was doing. He became a part of the family, a “Where is Bob?” when absent from dinners with Dad. But it became harder for Bob to get around, and sometimes he fell, and there were the last-minute reasons for not meeting at the Mason Jar that eventually led to him needing to move near his daughter, too far for Dad to see him on a regular basis. And, this past year, Dad moved four hours away to live with Pat. Still, the phone calls between them continued, with Dad always concerned afterward about how Bob was doing.
My dad is 97. When you are 97, all your friends have gone before you. Some went 70 years too soon, and in an instant, to ensure that people like me have the opportunity to live in freedom. Some went mid-life and unexpectedly, and some just eventually had their warranties run out. I always wondered why Dad had so few close friends through the years, when I have been blessed with a number. I think I am coming to understand that when your soulmates, your comrades in arms, are ripped from your life suddenly, as Dad’s and Bob’s were in World War II, it is hard to want to take the risk of embracing that pain again in friendships.
I never saw Dad love a friend like he loved Bob. There were guys he admired and respected, but no one had his heart the way Bob did. My brother Pat shared the gospel as he eulogized him, “because that’s what Bob would want me to tell you.” Bob modeled grace and acceptance for my dad, loving Dad exactly where he was in his life. And he did it for a long period of time.
And he made my dad laugh all the time, one of the kindest gifts one man can receive from another. Because after Mom died, there was too little laughter. Introspection will only carry you for so long. What Dad needed, and God gave him, was a buddy, a best friend who knew him and loved him anyway.
As I kissed my dad goodbye after the funeral, I knew he was entering again into the unknown. It’s hard enough to find a Bob when you’re 77; what do you do when you’re 97? Growing old is not for the faint of heart.
But as I reflect on Bob, I am grateful for the gift he was to my family, and to my Dad. Dad won’t be going back to the Mason Jar. But in this season of life when he lives, safe but emotionally unmoored, with my brother, he can look back on 20 years of memories and have a sense of what it would have been like if his war buddies had lived. Because the best of them would have been like Bob, carefree and full of hope even in the last days of struggle.
I don’t know what you do when you say goodbye to the last best friend you will ever have. If I know my Dad, he will walk forward and say, “So be it.” But he will never forget what it was like to have a friend who accepted him completely.
And neither will I.