This is a post that has me going in two different directions. One the one hand, I have an obligation to write this, for I was asked to put down “on paper” some remembrances of my friend Phil who passed away recently. As you can presume, having to write about a dear friend who is no longer with us is tough, because the hard reality is that I won’t see his big smile or hear his hearty laugh anymore. These last few years have been one filled with a lot of family and friends who have passed away. I reckon I am at the age in life when this is what is more of a common occurrence, though it certainly doesn’t make it any easier. My prayer lists for those close and dear to my heart has been sadly increasing in length.
My hope of course is in Christ and in His Resurrection, that death has no more sting or power, for it has been soundly and resolutely defeated. That is the consolation that I have, that one day I will see my family and friends again in a place of peace, joy and happiness eternal. That is where my friend Phil waits for me and for his family and friends.
I first met Phil back in 1999, my first year teaching high school. Talk about a baptism of blood. It was absolutely brutal, but I made it through at the end. Phil was one of the reasons why I made it through that first year of teaching. He knew well the struggles that I was having trying to be a teacher without having any true or genuine experience or knowledge of how to actually do it. I remember well the first time we connect. It was during one of the faculty meetings. We were sitting by one another and he was making funny faces and noises which only myself could see or hear, being that he was covering his face so the administrator speaking would not be privy to what was taking place at the last table. Oh, how hard it was to not just bust out with an utter bellow of laughter. That is one of the aspects that I loved about having Phil as my friend, for he could just give a certain, particular look, something akin to say what Buster Keaton or the great silent comedic movie stars of a different age could do. He would have me laughing in no time at all, which of course he would start to laugh right along with me. The students would then give us quizzical looks as we walked by trying hard not to laugh, obviously not being very successful at it.
Before school, he would be in the copy room deep in study for one of his many MBA tests. I would come in and see him poured over his books. I could tell he was stressed, so I would sit down and he would look up and give a look of exasperation, which would slowly change to one of his comedic expressions and we would both start to laugh. It was salve that was much needed. He worked so hard to obtain his MBA. I know well how much of himself he put into obtaining that degree.
Besides his humor, he had a deeply reflective and introspective side. I think that is another reason why we hit it off so well, why we got so close. I shared with him my past of studying for the priesthood for four years within the collage seminary and how my Catholic/Christian faith meant much to me. It was the same for him. Phil was of the Egyptian Christian Orthodox faith. I can think back to times where we would go into the little chapel on the school campus and pray. We would come out and sit on one of the hallway benches and talk about God, life, meaning, purpose, suffering, all of the substantial and profoundly deep topics that are often seen to be too vast and personal to openly discuss with another these days.
Friday after school, a group of teachers would go out and “debrief”. We would alternate between a few of the local restaurants and have some drinks and food. Phil and I would sit there just start to laugh without any promo or anything being said. He would just look over at me and make one of his silly faces at me and that was it! Those Fridays are one of my most cherished memories, because of the camaraderie that was formed by way of going through a similar experience of being a high school teacher. Sometimes when everyone left, Phil and I would stick around and keep chatting. We would just hang out for an hour or so longer. Those “debriefings” are cherished memories to say the least!
One of the last times I saw Phil before he left to go live oversees for employment opportunities, he picked me up and we went to a local Carls Jr. to have lunch. For whatever reason, he was craving a Carl’s hamburger, so off we went! I can still think back to sitting in his car, driving down Pershing with the airplanes flying overhead as they had just taken off, the semi overcast beach haze was still hiding the sun. He was sharing his frustrations about how difficult it was to find a good woman to marry. He was telling me about some of his recent dating episodes. It goes without saying that he had me laughing at some of the stories he shared about going out with this or that girl. None of them were right for him. Naturally he was frustrated at not having someone in his life to share. I just mentioned how it would happen for him in Gods time, that he would find the perfect wife who God would send. Turns out I was right, for he did find the perfect wife. Suffice to say, Gods ways are not our ways and that it is all a mystery for us on this side of things.
Phil gave me a gift one day, an Orthodox cross that I have had within my room for all of these years. I see it everyday, for I have it in a prominent place. When I would see it, my mind would of course turn to Phil and I would wonder how he was doing, how I missed him. Now when I see it, I think upon our friendship and the dear memories I have of him.
A few months before he passed away, Phil kept coming to my mind when I was praying my nightly Rosary. I knew intuitively that something must be going on with him, but I didn’t have any idea as to the particulars. While it was uncanny that he would come to my mind when praying, I simply took it as a message that my friend needed my prayers. So pray I did. It was a few weeks back that I came home from being out and happened to check online, receiving a message from a mutual friend that Phil passed away from cancer.
I just sat in my chair, the answer finally revealed as to why I was being beckoned to keep Phil in my prayers.
A few Sundays back, I went out to the beautiful Christian Egyptian Orthodox church that Phil loved to go and pray in. I had the privilege to meet his older brother, sister and cousins, along with other close family friends who were family to Phil. I wish that I could have met them sooner, with Phil introducing me to them all. I wish that I could have been there for his funeral and to be there for his wife and young son.
Life is not fair and it certainly is a struggle in so many ways. Though it is also beautiful and worth every moment. While I don’t have an answer as to why my friend had to leave us too soon, I do know that I just have to accept it and recognize that it is ultimately part of God’s loving plan and providence.
Suffice to say, I am a better person to have known Phil and to have him as my friend.
God bless and keep him…and may we be reunited in heavenly joy one day.