The letter waited more than thirty years to be found. Hidden in a shoebox, nestled in the middle of a pile of correspondence, it appeared just when I needed to find it, confirming a memory I’d begun to doubt.
Events had jumbled in the fog that occasionally shrouds my history, and I’d found myself wondering if I’d transposed people and places. The phantom recollection had haunted me, convincing me that I’d willed it into existence, finding comfort in a false memory’s sun-filled days.
But a winter afternoon spent rummaging through ancient cards and letters pushed all doubts away. The proof sat in a typed, two-page letter I’d written to my sister Kelly on August 23, 1982.
“Steve and I rented a bicycle built for two,” the letter read and went on to describe a long weekend that Steve Nelson spent with my family in Sun Valley, Idaho, right around his 16th birthday on August 18th.
The letter recounted a weekend outdoors in which we biked, walked, jogged, shopped, ate (frequently and in large quantities), and saw the movie Tron. A flat tire put an end to the biking, so we rented a paddleboat, allowing our motion-filled days to continue.
There was nothing artful about the writing, which, quite embarrassingly, even included a flatulence joke. The letter lacked substance and description, and none of our conversations were captured in any detail. Yet, I’m sure our chatter was incessant. We laughed and argued, equally annoyed and pleased with each other.
It spoke of a weekend, buried beneath insipid teenage writing, of intense companionship. No one else was mentioned; our friendship was the focus.
“Steven looked great,” I wrote at the end. “He even acquired a tan.”
I put the letter down and dug farther into the box of memories during that chilly afternoon. A few cards from grandparents, aunts, and uncles were set aside to keep. The rest were discarded, the teenage angst in some of the letters so palpable it practically seeped onto the table.
But I kept returning to my weekend with Steve. Had something more than coincidence led me to the box, just a few months before the anniversary of his death?
The hand of God? Maybe.
I’m always looking for such signs, something that will show me grace, the presence of God in our everyday lives. And I’m prone to believe in spiritual signals. If nothing else, finding that letter brought Steve back to me, along with a contemplation on the nature of friendship and aging.
Seasons compress as I grow older. A lunch visit more than 25 years ago feels like a handful of months; a phone conversation two years previous seems like yesterday. Misled by time and pushed apart by distance, people scatter and forget, taking for granted that there will be another opportunity for renewal.
But there are some relationships, particularly the ones forged long ago and sharing in a certain recognition and intimacy, in which those factors do not seem to matter. Their tensile strength is beyond measure.
And so I’ve learned that the people we love never truly leave us, whether they are absent because of physical geography or the geography of death. Our relationships alter to allow for that change, but they are near us, always, permanent residents in our hearts and minds. Steve’s vibrancy, idiosyncratic ways, survive in all who loved him.
Paddling last summer on the Pine River, I imagined Steve kayaking behind me, my single boat transformed into a tandem. He chattered in my mind, his paddle resting on the lip of the kayak as he spoke. Then all was quiet, and I pictured us together watching a turtle slip off a log into the river’s current.
He laughed, rubbing his hands together, a mannerism from our childhood, and we argued about politics or a book or something inconsequential before moving on to where we’d eat after the paddle. And then we reminisced about a summer weekend spent in Sun Valley during 1982, and a shoebox of memories that led me back to him.
His presence resonated around me, so real, I turned around in my boat, expecting to see him. The space was empty, but for a clutch of black-and-white dragonflies, chalk-fronted corporals, drawn to the heat reflected off my boat, just as I’m drawn to an invisible presence, who continues to radiate his originality and love to all who knew him.