(From June 2008)
I lost my best friend this month.
On June 5, Leo John Rebholz, only 59 and with a spirit and attitude at least half that age, died too soon while doing something he loved: playing basketball with the guys.
Leo left behind a devoted wife, three grown kids and their spouses, two grandkids, 10 brothers and sisters … and at least one devastated friend.
It’s a cliché, but Leo was closer to me than any brother could be. Our friendship was forged over 25 years. Leo was my go-to guy, the one person I could always count on either to pick me up when life slapped me down or to pull me back to earth when my ego took me to heights I didn’t belong. It’s common to compare such close knit buddies to a team like Martin and Lewis, but that would only sell our friendship short. After all, Dean and Jerry eventually broke up. That’s something Leo and I would never do, will never do, even though I no longer hear his voice or can reach out and give him a bear hug.
A little over a week from when I began mourning Leo, much of the rest of the country began mourning Tim Russert, who died of a heart attack while at work. He was only 58. Like Leo, Mr. Russert was known to be an affable fellow, devoted to his faith, his family, and his friends.
I’ve thought a lot about these two deaths, both just days before Father’s Day. One man was a famous individual whose passing was reported on the front page of every newspaper in the country. The other was known to a much smaller circle of individuals, his name just one of many listed in the daily obituary section of a handful of local journals.
Two very different men. Yet, given what I read about one and knew about the other, I couldn’t help but think that in their final moments, both would have similar thoughts. Not about their fame, fortune, or professional accomplishment but, rather, about that which matters the most.
I imagined both Mr. Russert and Leo thanking God for a good life, and maybe they petitioned for just a few more years so that they might say goodbye to their loved ones properly. But mostly they would have selflessly prayed for their families and friends.
Mr. Russert received the attention he deserved; I don’t begrudge him that. But I would suggest that his departure was no more a loss for our world than Leo’s, or that of so many individuals like him. My friend, you see, was a Navy veteran who, besides basketball, loved gardening, playing cards, golfing, and kibitzing with, well, anybody.
I miss my friend terribly. Just two months ago-an eternity, really-I just assumed that Leo would always be there to pick up the phone, to share a laugh or guide me through one of life’s regular crises that somehow don’t seem so important today. Like everyone else, our lives were fast paced-hurry, hurry, hurry-but there would always be ample time, someday, when work wouldn’t be so demanding, our schedules wouldn’t be so crowded, and we could just kick back and waste time together.
My friend is gone. And maybe the last lesson he taught me was that the only truly wasted time is that which we spend away from the ones we love. So many of us burn the hours so that we can provide others with things and we fail to give enough of ourselves.
My best friend is gone and every day I ache. I ache for his wife Kathy. I ache for his children and grandchildren.
But mostly I ache for myself.
They say that time heals all wounds. I hope it’s true. Leo’s passing has left a void in my life and a hurt that won’t go away. When I hear laughter, it sounds hollow, almost offensive. I fight the urge to scream at everyone, to tell them to stop. There is no laughter anymore, because Leo isn’t here. But that’s the last thing Leo would want.
What he would want is for me to find a blessing even in is death and I think I may have. I now understand that it isn’t just individual life that is fragile, but so, too, are the relationships we forge during our brief time on earth. And these relationships need to be cherished, nurtured, and appreciated while we can because life comes with no guarantees.
Thanks for listening. Now do yourself a favor. Think of someone like Leo in your life, someone dear to you, but who you haven’t spoken with lately. Put down this newspaper-it’ll keep-and make a call, write an email or, better yet, show up on a doorstep.
Do it for me. Do it for Leo. Better yet, do it for yourself.
I love ya, Leo, and I’ll see ya again. Count on it.