Many years ago, I was twenty years old and preparing to cross into Iraq to attack the defensive positions of their ground troops. My blood type was written in big letters over my heart on my flack jacket, as well as on one side of my helmet. On the other side of my helmet was a roster number so that they could quickly order a replacement for my position (Infantryman, one each. Use and replace as needed.). We were told in short order: "Focus on your objectives, remember your training, expect casualties."
At the same moment, on the other side of the world, my friends and former classmates were all in college. Going to class, getting drunk, getting laid, seeing bands, dancing in clubs, having fun, sleeping late, skipping class, protesting whatever was cool to protest that month...
I knew their world well since that's what I had left behind roughly a year before. I also knew that they likely neither thought about, understood, nor cared about mine. Mine had become too alien and different. It was neither fun nor cool. And even if they did think about it, it was all too easy to compartmentalize and distance as "someone else's problem".
And they were completely correct. I understood their world, and I knew that it kept moving without me. They were worried about where to go for spring break, I was concerned about keeping all of my limbs. Priorities. They had their families and each other, I had myself and an infantry platoon I had just joined a couple weeks before flying off to the desert.
But part of life is also finding a degree of grace and dignity, no matter what is thrown at us.
Because of this little piece of my history, I've been thinking a lot about my friends down in New Orleans. My life in my city goes on in the happy little way that I've spent many years building. And their lives have almost completely turned upside down in just a little over a month.
It could have been unfortunately easy to shrug off their situation, to focus on my world around me, and to distance theirs as "someone else's problem". But they're my friends, so I chose not to.
It's not that hard to give a little bit of time and compassion, to be attentive and responsive, to give some thought and consideration. But I've seen far too many people who can't be troubled. That's life, but I also believe our actions define us.
Yesterday afternoon, my friend finally died. In May he was fine, in June he was ill, and within the last 24 hours he's now gone. Only a year and a half ago I was at the wedding where he married one of my loyal friends from the past fifteen years.
We may all have our flaws, but I'll always remember him as someone who sincerely meant well and truly loved his wife. And I do have one anecdotal story to offer:
Over the previous weekend, as his friends and family gathered for his final weekend at home, I kept getting concerned texts about how he was trying to act as if nothing was wrong, as if he'd somehow recover, as if he didn't grasp the seriousness of his situation. Yet I also knew that he was bummed about missing the final Batman movie.
I pointed out that if he knew that he would miss a movie release that was less than ten days away, he was fully aware. I also explained that he was also a dude. We're raised to fix things, and to pick ourselves up from bad falls and walk stuff off as if we aren't actually in pain. He knew what was happening, but he wanted to hold it together and make the best of it, instead of seeing everyone else hurt and upset. He was being strong for them, as well as himself.
Through to the end, he chose to care, and to keep his dignity. And that's really as much as any of us could hope for.