A torn photograph

My friend Tyler posted a picture of a photograph the other day. The original lives in a photo album somewhere. You can see the adhesive stripes holding the photo to the page, and the edges of other photos, each with their own story to tell.

The left edge of the photo is torn–whether this was an accident, a means of sharing a memory with someone else or a way to excise something that no longer belonged, I don’t know.

The photo shows two friends, men, barely, in the midst of boyish laughter. The one on the the right is facing the camera, mid-sentence, his mouth round, but slightly contorted. It’s a face I’ll always know. It’s my friend Tyler.

Friend is a bit of a loaded word to use here. I’ve known Tyler since kindergarten or before. We lived two blocks away from each other when we were kids. We played together. We were in Beavers and Cubs together.

Tyler was very much the Cool Kid in our grade. He was bright and friendly. He was good at sports and popular. Most importantly, perhaps, he was a tough kid–fearless, at least to my eight-year-old eyes. He was a natural leader, then, and I think everyone wanted to be his friend.

And he was a good friend. I guess we were different in a number of ways–him, the cool tough kid; me, the brainy, more cautious kid–but we were tight.

Sure, he punched me in the face once, but it was an accident. We were in line in the schoolyard, he was shadow-boxing and I got a little too close. Whatever. These things happen between friends.

We were in the same class through grade 4, when I switched classes. We went to the same school until grade 6…then I switched schools.

A year later, I moved–close enough that we could have still hung out, but far enough that we were no longer in each other’s orbit. I’d go to a different high school. He’d stay in the old neighbourhood.

It was a good neighbourhood growing up. It was a mid-century inner suburb, staunchly middle-class. It was still in its first generation as a neighbourhood, so there were a lot of ties that ran through the community. You would know lots of families–maybe you were in the same class, maybe you played hockey together, maybe your older sister was a year behind his younger brother. You may not have known everyone, but you knew their names, even just their last names. Yates, Rankin, Heyward, Henein…these names that will never leave me, no matter how far I’ve left the neighbourhood.

I haven’t seen Tyler much since elementary school. I ran into him at a Rough Riders game at some point during high school–me and my friends snuck down to the lower deck, and he and his friends snuck down, too, just a few rows closer. They got caught and got kicked out. The people sitting beside us remarked that Tyler and his crew obviously didn’t pay for those seats.

In first year, we wound up in the same 1000-person law class. He was motivated. I was disillusioned. I dropped out after first year. He kept going.

Growing up, I went to three different elementary schools. By the end of high school, we’d lived in four different homes. The changes weren’t always significant–I was never the lone “new kid” at school; it was always a few of us who switched…we generally stayed in the same area of town, until the last move, but at that point I could drive, so it didn’t matter so much.

It was the first time I switched schools that I met Dax–that we met Dax. The mid-century school in the mid-century neighbourhood we’d gone to until grade 3 was at the end of its life. One year, we were celebrating the 40-year anniversary of the school (we’d had the same secretary the whole time!). Two years later, there were forty kids left. Two years after that, it was a French Catholic school. They’ve expanded, developing over the fields and adding portables.

There were probably five or six of us who switched schools at the beginning of grade 4, including me and Tyler. Just as Tyler was the cool kid at our old class, it seemed that Dax was the cool kid in our new class.

He was a good kid. He was an athlete, playing football and baseball. He was nice and kind. He showed no hesitance in befriending the new kids, even though he probably had enough friends, already.

I always liked Dax. We played football together one season. We rooted for the same team. He was fun to be around. But we were only in the same class for one year–grade 4–and the same school for three years. It’s not really the usual basis for a life-long friendship.

In retrospect, it’s no surprise that Tyler and Dax, the two cool kids from grade 4, would form a lasting friendship.

I’m active on social media these days, but I don’t really look to expand my network that much–it’s not like the early days of Facebook where you’d search out anyone you’d every shared a pack of bubble gum with and connect with them.

“Oh, it’s been so long. We should definitely get together.”

A few months ago, I friended Tyler on Facebook. He just happened to pop up in one of those slideshows of suggestions that’s usually just the same semi-random names that are mostly your wife’s friends.

I knew the face. I guess I’ll always know the face. It’s a face intrinsically linked with so much of my long-ago past. Compelled, I sent the friend request. He accepted it.

That was that. No fake heartfelt re-connection. No vacant rhetoric about how much we should–no, how we would–get together. Just the superficial connection over social media.

There was something real and honest about treating it as all it was.

So Tyler posted a picture the other day. It was him, probably about 19, looking directly at the camera. A buddy is beside him, laughing, his face shaded by the brim of a ball cap, and a nascent goatee further defeating any chance I’d have of recognizing Dax. But it was him.

Dax died on Friday.

First thing Monday, I sat at my computer and decided to check Facebook. That’s when I saw Tyler’s picture.

It was like so many others you see on Facebook. Someone finds an old photo album, enjoys a little nostalgia and just has to share. The picture on its own didn’t mean much to me. But that caption…

“Rest in Peace Brother. RIP Dax

It didn’t quite fit together. I knew it fit together. There was so much. A death. Young-adult Tyler. A face I didn’t know. A name I did.

In a blink, I understood. But, still. I had to check. It’s possible there was another Dax. The same age. The same relationship.

The first comment I read had his last name. Yes, it was him. I did a quick search. I found his obituary. I still didn’t recognize the face. He kind of looks like my friend, Bill. But it was all in obituary. It was Dax.

It hit me. It shook me up. I certainly don’t have the sense of loss of Tyler or of Dax’s family or current friends, but a sadness came over me.

I actually think of Dax every now and then. He’s very much linked to my memories of grade 4 and of going to a new school. My youngest daughter just started grade 4. And she just started a new school.

But I only ever knew Dax as a pre-pubescent kid…until now; now, I know him as someone lost too soon.

I never knew the person Dax became. I don’t know his story or his journey. I don’t know how he thrived or how he suffered. I don’t know his struggles or his triumphs.

I only know a kid, from grade 4. There was a happy lilt to his voice. He was always ready to be friends. He was nice and fun and sensitive. From that kid, I’m going to trust a good person grew. I don’t know, for sure, but I’m choosing to believe.

I’m putting my stock in that photo, a candid moment between friends. I know enough about the two people to understand the bond between them at that moment.

I’m disconnected from that memory. It’s not mine–maybe it could have been…maybe I could have been just on the other side of that torn edge…maybe if I hadn’t moved…

…but no, it’s not mine. I’m just looking in–an outside observer peering through the window, absorbing refracted grief.

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