My birthday was last Thursday.
As the day approached, I looked forward, with joy, yet with trepidation, to a special day that I would share with one of my best friends.
Ernie and I met when I was a freshman at Iowa State University – 50 years ago. He was to become a star on the Iowa State football team. I was to have one of the best seats in the house (the end of the bench) for the Iowa State basketball team.
All of that was in the future as I began my college career. Since we could not “officially” start basketball practice until October 15th, we had the “opportunity” to share a locker in the football stadium where we could “voluntarily” work-out.
I have to admit, the voluntary work-outs didn’t do me much good – at least in basketball terms.
However, the “opportunity” resulted in a lasting friendship that has endured for 50 years. On the first day of my voluntary work-out – I met Ernie. He was a sophomore football player from Cincinnati. I was a raw freshman from a little town in Iowa.
I was a bit overwhelmed by leaving the small town where I was “king of the hill” and going to a large university where everyone had been “king of the hill.” And, in most cases their hill had been bigger than mine. As I sat in front of my locker wondering if I really belonged there, Ernie sat down in front of his locker which was next to mine.
What I remember most about that first meeting was that the conversation was as if we had been friends all of our lives. The conversation wasn’t about who could “one-up” the other. It was just a friend talking to a friend.
A friend I did not know existed minutes earlier.
As the years went on, Ernie and I went our different ways. Often times those ways found us hundreds – even thousands – of miles apart. Still, every year or two we always found the opportunity to share a week, a weekend, a day, or even just a few hours, together.
The time between really didn’t matter.
Ernie is a member of our family.
He stood with Jade and me when we were married. Jade loves him as much as I do.
And so do my children.
When Ernie came to visit, it was difficult to find “alone” time with him while Kevin and Kelly were awake. They wanted to be with him. They wanted him to play with them – or to be a trampoline. They fought over who got to sit on his lap while we talked.
Ernie is family.
Many of my fondest memories include Ernie.
For 48 years, we found time to visit – to talk – or simply to email back and forth.
For 48 years.
Then, inexplicably I lost track of him. He no longer came to visit. He no longer talked with me on the telephone. He no longer answered my emails.
I know, as time passes, relationships often change. I knew Ernie had retirement plans that would make it difficult to continue our visits. Still, I wished he would have visited one more time.
I lost Ernie.
Thanks to my daughter and to Ernie’s sister Sylvia, I found him again. I found he is still in Cincinnati.
I found that while I found Ernie, he could not find himself.
I found that while I have wonderful memories of the times Ernie and I spent together. The times he spent with Jade, Kevin, and Kelly. The times he would travel a thousand miles just to be with us – Ernie had none of those memories.
Ernie has advanced stage dementia.
Learning this, Jade put together a photo book of memories that showed Ernie and our family through the years. It is a book of memories that remind us of the love and the great times we shared with Ernie.
It is a book of memories that we hope will remind Ernie that our family loves him.
Last Thursday, I had the joy of sharing my birthday with Ernie, Sylvia, and Jade. I had the joy of seeing his smile as he recognized both Jade and me.
I had sadness as later I saw him struggle to remember who we were – or where he was.
I felt joy when he looked at the book of memories that Jade had put together for him and as he smiled when he saw pictures of Kevin and Kelly playing with him. As he looked at our wedding pictures. Or pictures of Jade and I through the years.
I felt sadness when he looked at the book several times – sometimes recognizing and commenting on a picture – other times asking who the people were – in the same picture.
I felt joy that I was able to share a special birthday lunch with my wife and my best friend.
I felt sadness knowing that he would not remember our lunch, our visit, or our past.
I know that I will look at life a little differently going forward. I realize that the strong can become weak – that intelligence can be fleeting.
That memories can come and go.
I will always remember Ernie as a physically strong and mentally superior friend and family member. I will always remember his never-ending smile – both then and now.
Dementia may have taken a toll, but Ernie will always be Ernie.
A friend and a member of our family.
Ernie – we will always love you.
- Mike Cooney