Flowers Never Bend: The Meaning of a Friend

photo by Pete Consadine used under Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

by Ed Davis on May 30, 2017

“So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end
And flowers never bend
With the rainfall.”
—Paul Simon

Diagnosed with brain cancer, my childhood pal Steve found himself unable to pretend, as so many of us boomers do, that our lives will never end. His ended May 13, 2017, at 64 years of age, and I’m left to assess what the passing of my friend of 52 years means.

Celebration

The funeral was a lovely-sad affair, our grief somewhat muted by the long farewell and the miracle of his finding love with a wonderful caretaker during his final three years. His funeral seemed to me more celebratory than mournful. The poem I wrote for him, “To a Picker,” seemed to be well received, his friend Mark’s thoughtful eulogy was deeply moving, and his son Zack’s bluegrass band played not once but twice afterward.

The first tune they played, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Flowers Never Bend With the Rainfall,” recalibrated to bluegrass and sung in three-part harmony, was a ballad I hadn’t heard in decades. It returned me to the 1960s when Steve and I, seventh graders besotted by the Beatles, picked up, first, electric then acoustic guitars and somehow taught ourselves to play rock, then folk. We had no idea that, as important as college degrees, marriage and teaching careers would be, music more than anything would define our lives.

For me, playing music was a gateway to writing fiction and poetry; for Steve, it remained a life-long passion as he mastered fiddle, banjo and eventually his signature instrument, the mandolin. Several testified during and after the funeral about Steve’s expertise as an elementary school teacher, counselor and advisor to his friends.  He taught several to play mandolin. All spoke of his legendary patience, to which I’ll also attest. I owe “The Weight,” “These Days,” “Sweet Baby James” and many more in my repertoire to Steve’s musical mentoring.

Beneath the Mask

Oh, the stories I could tell. But the one I’ve been struggling to tell myself in the week since his passing is what it means to lose the friend who taught me my first chords and pursued my soul relentlessly until I was baptized in the First Baptist Church of Princeton, West Virginia. Now I believe I’m finally seeing beneath soundtrack to subtext. Steve was my conscience, simple as that.

During our long friendship, we sometimes hurt each other deeply. I was part of a group that scapegoated him in the summer between seventh and eighth grades, the greatest mistake of my youth and one for which I’ll continue to make living amends for the rest of my life. Following my divorce in the early ‘80s, he told me hard truths about myself, stripping away my masks and impugning my very identity. (Not hard to do, since I hadn’t the slightest clue who I was, other than a victim.) Devastated at the time, I eventually benefited a lot from his scathing critique.

Homecoming

After the 80s, we parted until late August, 1993, when, returning to Ohio from a vacation in Maine, I stopped by on a whim to see him at his home in Morgantown. To my surprise and great pleasure, he welcomed me like the best friend I’d once been.

“Play something,” he said, handing me a guitar, grinning beneath his mustache.

I panicked a little. He was the real picker, not me.

“But . . . what?” I stalled.

“Anything,” he said, clutching his mando close, already in his hunch.

Shakily, I played the Crosby, Stills and Nash classic “Helplessly Hoping,” while Steve tore in behind me like it was The Hallelujah Chorus, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Soldier’s Joy” all in one. While the sun lay down, we played and drank and we played some more till stars soared like silver notes in the West Virginia night sky. By the time I left the next day, we’d forgotten—or it no longer mattered—what each of us needed to forgive the other one for.

Rest well, my soul’s companion, my conscience, my friend.

P.S.:  A Call for Poems:  Generosity

Once again Barbara Rohrer is putting out a call for poems to be considered for publication in The Sycamore, the handsome publication she edits for Christ Church Cathedral in Cincinnati. This time she needs poems related in some loose way to the theme of generosity. Deadline:  July 31, 2017. Submit at editor@readthesycamore.com.

Post image “Mandolin 5” by Pete Consadine, used under Creative Commons license https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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