I would drive up to my buddy’s house, unannounced, bored, perhaps, desiring the company of one of my oldest, best friends. I’d park my hand-me-down Jeep in the roundabout driveway, power down the ignition, clamber out of the driver’s seat, slam the door, and lock it with a strong thumb against an ancient key-button. I’d pace past the hemmed bushes, sneakers on the concrete path, eyes on the auburn door. Ring the doorbell, were it working at the time, or knuckle a knock against the heavy oak. More often than not, he would greet me there. “Oh, hey, Tyler. Looking for James?”
It is that now of which I think when I think of my friend’s lost father. Tattered gym shorts, the stuff of stand-up routines, routines most often those of his daughter, his wife, his son. Too-tight t-shirts, ancient, faded. Comfortable. Don Schmidt was a man comfortable within himself, within his family, a beautiful family. From the age of eleven, I spent nights upon nights in their company, best friend sleepovers, homemade dinners, movies, endless screenings of Seinfeld, which, for a long time, I didn’t appreciate (neurotic even then, was I). James and I would banter, play video games, swim, pre-adolescent, adolescent, becoming the friends we remain to this day, his parents adopting me as one of their own, cinnamon rolls forever waiting the morning after, blankets forever offered, whether needed or not. Late nights playing ping-pong, the clatter no doubt keeping Gayle and Don awake; my middle-school crush on Erika everpresent. They were nascent days, youth aligned, friends growing up in tandem.
Age dawning, relationships deepened, grew, as real romances do. I loved that family, and they appeared to harbor some affection for me. Forever were they busting balls, me an amused observer, that family room, the couch, the easy chairs, the piano adorned with framed photos, the TV glowing with syndicated Seinfeld, Reds games, until James and I would decide on a movie for the night. We grew into adults, cigarettes and beer entering the equation, but somehow the routine, the feeling, forever remained the same. This was a home. This was a place of love, love and laughter. James and I, a volatile pair in our earliest incarnations, grew into the brothers we will remain forever. Those days, those nights, those interactions, those sleepovers, those pool parties, those mere conversations, I shall cherish always.
I’ve never been the easiest person to know, to accept; I have my ways, built-in, and they can be off-putting. This family accepted me, only more and more with time, and, with that time, I came to feel their home was mine, as well. Their beloved cats felt like my pets, too. My onetime crush grew into a true friend, kindred spirits, us, both obsessed with those dastardly Beatles. Our families even shared a trip to Beatlefest once, Chicago, long before James and I would live there together, bounding around the Rosemont Hyatt, James and I knocking on room doors and racing away down the hall, Erika and I watching Astrid Kirchherr speak about how she still recalled how her long-dead lover, onetime Beatle bassist Stu Sutcliffe, “smelled of paint.” Eri’ and I also caught a screening of Let It Be, the great lost Beatle movie, barred from modern distribution due to the Fabs’ abhorrence at the behavior displayed within.
I think of these things now, and I think of that door, swinging open. I think of Don, all grin, wry commentary, hilarity forever lurking within. (Favorite story? During Eri’ and James’s initial obsession with Ludacris–which, given the household, led to endless occasions of joking quotations–Gayle woke late one night to find her husband hogging the covers. “Dammit, Donald, move!” she demanded. Groggy, barely awake, Don missed nary a beat, responding “Move, bitch. Get out the way. Get out the way.”) As we kids grew into adulthood, Don remained there, this tolerant, brilliant mind, forever ready with a wisecrack, or, even better, solid conversation about the world, even if he was conservative and we were not. We’d sip beer poolside. We’d exchange jokes. We’d converse in that manner that only true mutual respect and love allow.
Plus, there was this. There was a moment, high school, when our boy got into a bit of trouble. It was a big fucking joke, and the “charges” were overblown. Circumstances being what they were, though, Don had to come in early to St. X some Friday morning, defending his son’s considerable worth. It was a tense time. We waited for our boy’s dad to arrive. When he did–well, I’ll never forget the image. He strode in, impeccable suit, briefcase in hand, shades over eyes, confident as the day is long. He was there, ready, eager, ferocious, to defend his son.
It is that image of which I think tonight. I’ll think of many, no doubt, many described here already. But that is how I want to remember a man we lost too soon.
Donald Schmidt–you lived a grand life, sir. I am honored to have known you. I am humbled to have been by you accepted. I am anxious to see you whenever I see what follows this life. For the moment, sleep well. You had dreams, and you saw them through. Thanks to you, they’ll stay sweet. You married a beautiful woman, and the two of you built a beautiful family. For what it’s worth, I love you.
I’ll see you around sometime.