It is difficult to estimate the influence of certain people in my life. I have been influenced in a multitude of positive and negative ways, just as I am sure others have been influenced by me. We all shape each other somehow, but those closest to us can reveal our true selves if will see.
The value of a good, true friend cannot be overestimated. I can name several, but one that stands out to me as a positive influence on my life is a friend I had as a teenager named Matt.
I simply cannot remember a time that he made a joke or negative comment about my condition. Don’t get me wrong, we mutually made fun of each other frequently for just about anything else. That is simply how some friendships are. He nicknamed me “Taco” because of my chosen hairstyle in the 90s–I was oblivious to the origin of this well-worn nickname for years–and I poked fun at his mannerisms, but there was never any ill will behind our banter. It was actually a relief when I found out that “Taco” had nothing to do with EPP.
Never once did he treat me with pity or deference. He just knew that this was my life and that whatever accommodations I needed to make for myself were part of our friendship. It was not weird for him; he was not dramatically benevolent; but neither was he indifferent or insensitive. I remember him standing up for me, sometimes obviously with good humor and at other times subtly changing the subject.
At one point we were at an activity and a girl, whom I believe may have had a teenage, hormonal, and thus irrational, crush on me, was making a big fuss because the bright sun was shining intermittently between the cloud breaks. I know she meant well, but I just wanted to hang out unnoticed by those playing baseball in the sunlit field who were casting stares at me because some girl was screaming out the injustices of the world. Matt was there and he just looked at the girl, then looked at me, and gave his characteristic knowing grin. I don’t exactly remember how he managed to shut her up, but he did so in a subtle way that made her calm down without resentment. Then he went swimming, but without guilt like it was just a normal part of his day, and I played cards with those who remained, a more subdued girl among them.
It is a minor point in my history many years ago, but it illustrates how we can’t really know how we will influence others. When the facts of my memory aren’t perfect, I always remember the feel of my friendship with Matt and try to emulate his spirit and respect in my treatment of others today.
Eventually real life divided us with distance as we sought education and chased women. We grew apart, as is common among high-school friends, until the memory of our incomprehension of a future bereft of our friendship faded to whispers of empty ambitions in the wake of new directions and experiences. But every time we meet, though years go by, it is like we never separated and the memories of good times and laughs emerge as from a forgotten dream. Even our last reunion, palled by the premature death and subsequent funeral of a shared and treasured fellow high-school friend, was cheered by resurfaced memories and the awareness of our surviving connection.
What made Matt so special to me, I think, was his plain acceptance. He never pretended EPP was normal; to him, it just was normal. He didn’t have to live in denial, as I constantly did at that time, that EPP wasn’t freakish. I wasn’t his “friend who can’t be in the sun”, I was just his friend. I want that kind of acceptance within myself.
I have been blessed enough to have known many who showed me this kind of compassion. It always seems to come like a lifeline cast just as I feel about to drown. Matt entered my life at such a time, when I was low and desperate, and I am a better man for his influence. I actually remember emotionally giving up when the very next week Matt moved into town and initiated a friendship with me on his own.
To borrow from a common euphemism, it was like a patch of dark shading in a bright place. Thanks, Matt.