I just got back from a family reunion in Minnesota, which included a wonderful overnight canoe trip in the Boundary Waters – a dream of mine. My wife stayed behind with the baby, which left just William and I sharing a canoe, alongside my uncle, sister, and cousins, and their respective partners. More than once, I’ve called my son, now three, my “one of my best friends”. Paddling alongside my partnered relatives, or carrying canoe and camping gear over short portages, I remembered that, as much as I love him, my three-year-old is not really my friend.
Real friendship requires balance – not that we paddle equally, but that we each bring something to the canoe. Wonderful as he is, William is not there – yet.
So, I want to tell you about my best friend, Tami. We met in the spring of 2003, introduced by a mutual friend. She lived three blocks away, and before long, we were regularly taking walks across the city, or sitting in her apartment drinking tea and drawing, collaging, sewing, or getting into some other creative project. You know those packets you get at fast-food restaurants – the ones that say “fancy ketchup”? She glued red rhinestones on to them. They truly were fancy when Tami was done with them.
Hanging out with Tami, my definition of “artist” changed from “someone more skilled and creative than me” to “something anyone can be, if they act on their ideas.” Together with a few friends, we started a haunted house project, which went on for 13 years, and brought together neighborhood kids and adults to get scared by the hundreds. I met my wife at one of those haunted houses, and we were married at another.
Walking with Tami, she helped me realize that bike commuting led me through all the low points of our city. On foot, we climbed hills together, and I saw things from a different perspective.
Tami was always there for me, or would tell me when she couldn’t be – which was almost as helpful. When I needed a roommate, she moved in, and moved out again later, before hard feelings developed. Tami was the best “man” at my wedding – one of my favorite pictures is of her dressed as a Sharktopus, with a tiny shark-fin hat and a tentacle skirt, signing the wedding certificate, surrounded by Kirsten and me in our seahorse coats and the other sea creatures in our wedding party.
You’ve probably noticed that I talk about Tami in past tense. She was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2009, and became a model for me of how to die well. She used the time when the cancer or its treatments were not so debilitating to check items off her “bucket list”. Seeing friends. Making art. Traveling with family. She and I got to travel Japan together.
When I think that heaven might be more than just an idea, I imagine Tami reliving a day we had in Matsumoto, Japan: while viewing ancient carp in the castle moat, we were approached first by a man who said “are you from America? Me too!” and opened his coat to reveal a Superman T-shirt, by another who told her “you are so beautiful! You have such a big nose!”, and then by a couple who gave us free tickets to enter the castle. A man with a carp-like moustache, who studied castles worldwide, then offered us tour, and invited us back that night for a free concert. That afternoon we went to a seven-story 7-11 department store, which had the best men’s underwear. On one of the packages, Tami found a passage about letting go, and living each day to its fullest. She asked me to read it at her funeral.
In her last two days of her life, Tami came out of a coma twice: first to joke with her family, then to ask “why am I still connected to this machine?” The next day was my first wedding anniversary.