So shalt thou rest, and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny.
—William Cullen Bryant: Thanatopsis
I’ve wondered sometimes, as the years have slipped by, how it would feel to be old. To reach that age when, as a matter of course, those you knew and loved passed away in rapid succession. What my parents have seen and felt, as they have watched old friend after old friend being returned to the earth. Until there are but few left. And their own passing is imminent.
This week, I got a small taste of what that feeling might be like.
When I first came to Lancaster County, back in the early 1990s, I somehow met and got to be friends with an old Amish guy. A preacher. Open, kind, always eager to visit and discuss anything and everything under the sun. His name was Benuel Blank.
I stopped by often on Saturdays during those early years, just to hang out and talk. Ben had known my Dad well, and had even contributed a monthly column to Family Life for a year or two. Until the hard-core Lancaster County Amish machine convened an inquisition and shut it down. With pious proclamations and sanctions. Which affected Ben deeply.
Ben was always curious about what I was learning in college. I delivered more than one of my old History and Political Science textbooks to him. A voracious reader, his eyes always gleamed as he took them from my hands.
I never heard him preach. And that’s my loss. Never really had the opportunity, as I don’t have a habit of attending Amish church services here or anywhere else. Others have told me he always delivered a powerful emotional sermon of grace and love. Unashamedly preached the gospel. Mingled with his message his tears.
He had known Elmo Stoll well. Was a good friend of his. Even after Elmo moved to Cookeville, he came to Lancaster County to visit Ben at least once.
In the past ten years, Ben and I drifted apart. Didn’t see that much of each other. I was busy with my life. Didn’t stop by as often as before. Saw him sporadically here and there, maybe every couple of years.
Ben called me once or twice after Ellen and I separated a few years back. He could not grasp, could not comprehend such a thing, but he called. To let me know he cared.
He read my blogs as and when he could get hold of them. Once or twice, I stopped by and dropped off the latest copies. He eagerly devoured The Shepherd Chronicles, and complimented that effort with an enthusiastic “Well done!”
Ben’s wife Annie passed away last year from cancer. Some months later, I stopped by to visit him. He talked incessantly of her, and how much he missed her. Tears flowed from his eyes; he wept openly.
It was the last time I saw him alive.
On Wednesday, an Amish friend called me at work. Early that morning, Ben had passed away from a heart attack. At age 76. His fondest wish was granted. He had left this earth. And gone to join his wife.
Having barely absorbed the news of Ben’s death, I arrived home that evening. To find a message on my home phone. From another friend. Call him right away. I did. His voice broke as he told me the news. My old friend Ralph Stanley had passed away that morning.
He had a benign tumor on his brain. All they had to do was cut it out. He should have been fine. But then something went dreadfully wrong. He never recovered from the surgery.
Ben was older, his death a shock, but really not that unexpected. Ralph Stanley was three years younger than me. We had been friends for twenty years.
I first met Ralph when I came to Lancaster in 1989 or 1990. From “English” back-ground, he had joined the Beachy Amish and was running with the local Pequea church youth. Tall, thin, a hard sculpted intelligent face. I remember meeting him for the first time. I thought, “now here is an intelligent young man I can talk to.”
We hit it off immediately. And began to hang out. Neither of us had much in the way of family or relatives in the area. I had one cousin. He had a sister.
Ralph was a Licensed Practical Nurse, an LPN. I was a student and worked construction in the summers. Not a lot in common. But we became best friends.
He talked of his experiences at the hospital where he worked. I mumbled about my job. We both loved to read. Ralph dissected and discussed in minute detail the books he was reading. I mumbled about Thomas Wolfe.
He was intrigued by the fact that I was attending college. Such a thing was as remote a possibility in his background as it was in mine. I encouraged him, told him he could do it too. Eventually he did. Attended Millersville University and attained his RN degree.
We didn’t really have a lot in common, on the surface. I think we jelled so well because we both emerged from hard, plain roots, a tough background. He came from the hardscrabble hills of Gallipolis, Ohio, where nothing was ever taken for granted. And little was expected.
He had fine long fingers, and taught himself to play piano. I marveled. To me, it would have been like teaching myself to speak Latin. On many a Saturday afternoon, I stopped by his place, and was lulled to sleep on the couch as he pounded away and sang at his sister’s piano, his high clear tenor echoing through the house.
And throughout these last twenty years, he was always there in the background. We embarked on countless adventures together. Laughed a lot. He was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever known. Sometimes we didn’t see each other for months on end. But when we did, we picked up right where we had left off.
About ten years ago, he made some lifestyle choices that alienated him from some in his family and from most of his old friends. He was utterly rejected by those closest to him. He felt the pain to the core of his soul.
After that, he preferred to be addressed by his middle name, Allan.
He was my friend before. He remained my friend. And I his.
He was among my closest supporting pillars during my latest troubles. About one Sunday night a month, he faithfully came out to see me. I grilled dinner and we sat and ate. For as skinny as he was, the man could pack away a lot of food. We talked. About life. The books we’d read, in minute detail. Our plans. How they didn’t always work out. Our dreams. And how life could kill them, if we allowed it to happen.
And our friendship could fade too, if we allowed it to happen. I last saw Allan earlier this year, in January or February, when I met him in town for a late lunch one dreary Saturday afternoon. We talked. Didn’t seem to have much of a connection, which was strange. I wondered about it at the time. I scolded him good-naturedly. Told him next time he would have to call me. I wouldn’t bother him again.
We parted. He walked away into the cold winter mist.
I never heard from him again. I’m sure we would have connected this summer, when I have my great annual cookout.
But now we won’t. Because he’s gone.
They’re both gone. Benuel Blank, the Amish preacher. And Ralph Allan Stanley, my old faithful friend.
How does one process, how does one grieve the same-day loss of two such long term relationships, two such old friends? Who so suddenly were called away before we could say good-bye, who have now crossed the bar to the other side. From which there is no return.
I know what it is to process loss. And what it is to grieve. But right now, somehow, it seems like I don’t.
This is how it must feel to be old.
A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.
We gather infrequently these days, the three of us. Usually at a wedding, about every year or two. Last week, as the guests assembled for my nephew’s big day, I looked for them. I knew that they would come.
They are my friends. Best friends might not be quite accurate anymore. As it once was. But old friends is. From way back. Decades ago.
We haven’t lived in the same area since the late 1980s. Not all three of us. We drifted, our lives diverged on different tracks. Pursued our own paths.
And yet, when we get together, it’s pretty much like it’s always been. We share a comfortable sense of affection, a feeling of relaxed acceptance, a solid foundation of quiet trust. Intangible bonds that can only be forged on the tempered twin anvils of experience and time.
I met them in the summer of 1976 in Bloomfield when I was a skinny 15-year-old kid. Marvin Yutzy was about my age. Rudy Yutzy a year or so younger. We hit it off almost immediately.
After my family moved to Bloomfield that fall, we became friends. Somehow we just clicked. Marvin and Rudy were first cousins. Had known each other all their lives. I was the new guy on their turf. They gladly made room for me.
Rudy, the youngest and the tallest, was the orator of the group. He could weave and stitch and thread the most fascinating vivid tales from the most mundane everyday events. No detail was too small, no comment too obscure. He included and expounded on them all in the fantastic colorful narratives that flowed from him in a continuous rolling stream.
Marvin was a bit more reserved. Intelligent, thoughtful, observant, a keen hilariously dry sense of humor. He could deadpan a joke and move on before the true incisive humor of his observation hit you. A natural wingshot. I’ve seen him knock ducks and pheasant and quail out of the sky in quick precise succession with his old Browning 12 gauge.
And me, well, I’m not quite sure where I fit in. Probably the one that brooded and mulled over things. Perhaps over-mulled, if that’s a word. The one who made the occasional comment that made absolutely no sense to the other two. But somehow it worked. Somehow we jelled. We became fast friends.
We were intelligent. Curious. Hungry. Quick to laugh. Found humor where none really existed. Devoured all the books we could lay our hands on. Discussed what we’d read. Passed our worn, dog-eared paperbacks to each other.
We weren’t particularly exclusive, at least not early on. We hung out with other friends, especially the little group of six that eventually formed. But the three of us always had a connection, a special bond.
I turned sixteen first. Marvin a few months later. We began “running around.” Rudy had to wait another year before he could join us.
Marvin and I rattled about in his decrepit little death trap of a topbuggy, hitched to Jane, his driving horse. Jane was small, but fast. She could flat out move. The speeds she sometimes reached, it is a true miracle the decrepit little buggy held together. The way it rattled and creaked and swayed, I was always convinced it would disintegrate at any second. I marvel sometimes, even today, when I think about it. That we didn’t get seriously hurt, or worse. There ain’t enough money, anywhere, to tempt me to take a ride again in that buggy hitched to Jane, were such a thing even possible.
Rudy looked on enviously as his two close friends ran around that first year. We were sixteen. Told each other that we would savor every day of that age. Sixteen. We were men. Or felt that we were.
Soon enough Rudy joined us, and we hung out with our group of six. Restless, driven, full of energy and desire. We hung out as and where we could. Got together every chance we had.
Then one fall day the three of us were together, working in a field. I don’t remember where, or exactly what we were doing. Probably filling silo somewhere, or some such similarly grueling task. We were deeply absorbed in a discussion of how we would always resist the powers that oppressed us, how we would be loyal to each other. Always. Through whatever might come.
I don’t remember whose bright idea it was. Or where he dreamed it up. Probably read it in a book somewhere. Maybe a Louis L’Amour western. Sounds like something Louis might have written. And we were big fans of his.
“Let’s be blood brothers,” said the one with the bright idea. “We can stick our fingers with a pin and join them together. Mingle our blood. That’ll do it.”
With scant consideration, the other two agreed immediately. That would be a fine and noble thing. Blood brothers. Always loyal to each other. Always there for each other. Come what may.
One of us found a safety pin, probably stuck in his coat to replace a missing button. Gingerly then, one by one, we each pricked a thumb. Until we could squeeze out a drop of blood. We held up our hands, thumbs extended. They met. We pressed. The blood mingled.
We swore no oaths. Made no vows. Probably would have, had anyone dredged up the presence of mind to think of one.
“Brothers,” was all we said. “Blood brothers, always.”
And then, out there in that harvest field that afternoon, our little makeshift ceremony was over. We returned to whatever it was we were doing. It’s probably the first and only time in history that three Amish youths did a thing like that.
We talked about it sometimes, what we’d done. It meant something to us. We weren’t sure why, but it was a solemn thing. And despite the years that have passed, we still recall that day and that event.
The years flowed on then, and our deeds and the words we spoke were what they were. Good and bad. Rudy was the first among us to settle down. He began dating Marietta Yoder. When he was twenty years old, they married. Settled in a little trailer house on his father’s farm.
Marvin and I continued our running around. Some time later, he began dating my younger sister Rhoda. In October of this year, they will observe their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.
Children were born to them both. Strong sons and beautiful daughters. Rudy has been a grandparent now for a year or two, again the first among us to reach that milestone.
My path meandered a bit more, through some rough terrain. In the spring of 1986, my personal life imploded. Reeling from a succession of self-inflicted blows, I wrapped up my business affairs and left Bloomfield. With nothing but the clothes on my back and a thousand bucks. This time, I didn’t sneak away under cover of darkness with only a note to announce my absence. In broad daylight, I boarded the bus and headed out. My two blood brothers remained behind, with their fledgling families.
I would remain in a precarious mental state for a few more years. And yet, throughout all my subsequent wanderings, as I fled to strange and distant places for reasons I could not articulate or fully comprehend, when the winds and fire swept and raged around me, when the vast lifeless wastelands stretched into infinity before me, through it all one fact remained constant.
I was always, always welcome at the homes of my blood brothers. And at their tables. Not that I came around that much. But when I did, they welcomed me. As I was. Who I was. Even though by doing so they risked the smoldering wrath and harsh discipline of the Bloomfield church fathers, who viewed with grim displeasure even the appearance of friendship or fellowship with a backslidden renegade like me.
Always, their doors were open. Quietly, with few words, they supported me as best they could, as best they knew.
They didn’t preach. Or pretend to understand the demons I wrestled. Or ask why I did the inexplicable things I did.
They were just there. As they had promised. In that stubbled field so long ago.
It meant a lot to me then. It still does.
True friends are a rare and precious thing.
In time, both Marvin and Rudy left Bloomfield. And the Amish church. Today, Marvin and his family reside in the Hutchinson, Kansas area. Last year, Rudy and his family moved to Linn, Missouri.
We’re graying now, about the age our fathers were years ago, back when we were convinced they knew nothing. That pretty much all they said or did was madness.
The years flow by like water, and the dreams of who we thought we were or would be by now have receded and fallen by the way. We have seen and lived things we would have thought unfathomable in our youth.
And yet, as we met this past week, we sat about and talked in the calmness of settled contentment. Spoke of the old times. Retold the old jokes and laughed again together. Rehashed old memories. The things we did. The blood ceremony.
We realize our fathers had some wisdom after all. We concede that now in retrospect.
We might not be who we thought we were back then, a lifetime ago. But we are who we are. And one constant fact remains true.
We’re “blood brothers” still. And old friends.