Not Afraid to Live

This past May, Anthony Sloan, one of my best and lifelong friends, died suddenly. Today, his ashes are being scattered at a sacred place in Utah, on what would have been his 39th birthday. Here is a copy of the words I wrote for the memorial we held for him in Austin.

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers’ pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turn’d.
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burn’d,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion and mine eye may be deceived:
For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred;
Ere you were born was beauty’s summer dead.

When George Harrison died, Paul McCartney simply said, “He was my baby brother.” It was a lovely thing to say, neatly packing into it the strength of the bond, the tender feelings at the heart of it, and a relationship that had lasted since both of them were kids. They weren’t really brothers, but they were.

Now Anthony’s gone, and when feelings of grief started to spike their way out of the numb fog I initially found myself in, that quote came to mind, and I realized I felt the same way. I felt like I’d lost my little brother. Technically, Anthony was older than me (by a month), but somehow there was a way in which he was my little brother, who started out kind of small and puny but eventually charged off on his own, seeking pleasure and excitement, broadening his horizons, always seeming to be in a little bit of a hurry to get to the next bit.

I remember the exact day I first met Anthony. It was 27 years ago at Kirby Hall. We had a fun afternoon outside in the park, playing with gunpowder of all things, under the tutelage of a science teacher named Frank Mikan. We drew shapes and cursive words in the dirt with sticks, and then he poured trails of gunpowder into the grooves. We made sure they all connected, then Mr. Mikan lit one end and we watched it burn the trail all the way to the end. I was best friends at the time with a guy named Mike, and Mike’s sense of humor was such that he just wanted to draw a big nose with an extra big blob of gunpowder at the nostril, so that it would appear to sneeze in a big explosion.

It was this adventure with the gunpowder that made the day stick in my memory, but Anthony later told me to my surprise that this was his “visiting day” at KHS, when a prospective student drops in for a day. Anthony had such a good time that of course he came home saying Kirby Hall looked like great fun, and there he was there from 7th grade all the way through senior year. By the time we graduated, he was one of my best friends, and still is.

I remember that in between our junior and senior years, there was a financial crisis where it looked like Anthony wouldn’t be able to afford to come back in 12th grade. It was resolved by his agreeing to work on the school all summer with Joe, the school custodian and handyman. In particular, Anthony helped give the interior a new coat of paint, paint that’s probably still on the walls of that school even now. Anthony made sure to let us know that while we were slacking around having fun that summer, he was working and painting. He was busting our chops, but underneath that I think he was feeling a sense of ownership and connection to the school that was more real, like he personally had earned the right to be there another year, where the rest of us were kind of coasting in. There was a boost of pride and self-esteem there that would serve him well.

Anthony’s transformation from the small little crushed over guy he was in 7th grade to the confident (and possibly overconfident) young man he was by 12th grade is something I’ve always been amazed by. For years, he had no self esteem at all. Even in a school made up of nerds and misfits like Kirby Hall, Anthony started out on the really far end from being cool. He was short, he wore big chunky glasses, his lips didn’t close over his teeth when they were relaxed, and he nearly had a lisp. He was not good at sports or physical activities (which will surprise people who knew him in recent years), and didn’t stand out academically. Some of us liked to draw, as did my friend Mike, and Anthony wasn’t that great at drawing, either. He could draw one thing, this funny little fish. An Anthony fish.

So even though Kirby Hall was a school where public school misfits like myself could find a home, it was still tough going for Anthony those first few years. I have always had a history of giving people that weren’t considered cool by the cool kids a chance, and I befriended him, and included him where I could.

There was one weekend that Anthony spent at my house. I can’t remember how this came about, because at the time I didn’t think of him as one of my close friends, though I did after that weekend. I think he was originally just going to stay one night, but due to the weather his mother didn’t come to get him until Sunday. It just happens that this weekend saw the best snow fall that Austin ever had in my lifetime, or in Anthony’s. It snowed enough that we could go sledding down the street from my house. We both loved our memory of going sledding that weekend, even though that was just a tiny part of how we spent the time.

I remember we decided to play a board game, and I hauled out Risk, which wasn’t the best idea. It was fun for a little while, but eventually the balance of power tilted in my favor, and made us both miserable. Anthony was rolling lousy numbers in a long streak, and it was basically an inevitable death march until I wiped him off the board completely, but it was going to take another half an hour to do it. Yet there was also this sense that we couldn’t just quit before it finished, there was something kind of dishonorable and pride-wounding for him to accept that, even though neither of us were enjoying the game any more. Then, all of a sudden, I think I made a spastic move and accidentally kicked the board over, scattering all the pieces and ruining the game. We simultaneously burst into laughter, completely relieved that the game had been ruined so we could pack it up and do something that was actually fun.

There also occurred for some reason a bizarre pillow fight where we were both wearing sleeping bags over ourselves, so we couldn’t really see the other guy except to hear him go “oof!” or to hear his crazy laughter. It was incredibly silly, manically silly, completely senseless. Eventually we came out for air, and I remember Anthony had this blazing look of unalloyed joy on his face. I had just been having some fun, but he looked like he was having fun like he’d never had before. It was also like he was trusting me to really be his friend, not to turn around and push him around or be snide with him or put him down, or other things he just looked like he’d endured.

Anyway, that’s the weekend that my friendship with Anthony, that lasted to the rest of his life, was founded on.

There was a later counterpart, almost a sequel, to that snowy weekend. Sometime during college, my parents were out of the country at Christmas and I was alone, so Anthony invited me to spend the holiday in Houston with his father and grandfather. We had another great time together, though we’d discovered more grown-up ways of being silly. He hauled out a typewriter, and we took turns writing a book, one page at a time, riffing on each other and trying to be as entertaining as possible. By that point, Anthony and I had developed a particular comic sensibility together, first through ad-libs and the series of “radio shows” we tape recorded with our friends Dave and Steve. It was playful and of course silly, and often used corkscrew turns in logic that we found to be a rich vein for amusement. We’d invented some characters that were comedic versions of ourselves, some brothers named Birch Tree, Runt, and Clam. One of the archetypal jokes about those brothers was: “Birch Tree is the oldest, although Runt was born first.”

I was Birch Tree and Ant was Runt , and somehow this explains how Anthony was my little brother even though he was older than I am. In another week or so, I’ll be older than Anthony for the first time in my life. If he were around to joke around with, I’d say “Haw haw! Passed you!”.

Anyway, during those six years at Kirby Hall, I watched Anthony grow from awkward and small to grown up and forward-charging. He stopped trying to imitate and copy what the cool kids were wearing and doing (a phase he went through that broke my heart to see), and learned to dress like Anthony and feel darn good about it, to be himself, to find his own voice. He got a car named Fred, a piece of junk that he drove like it was a screaming little sports car. Then he got Spike, a Volkswagen thing that he could literally take apart and put back together. He was no longer diffident, but starting almost to act like an alpha male among our little pack.

Eventually I asked him what had catalyzed this transformation. “I got laid, basically,” he said.

That gave him the self-confidence he was missing. One can look back and see how he might have over-compensated for the lack of it, and come across as a bit of a jerk at times. I’m reasonably sure that if I’d ever roomed with him, like some of my friends did in college, I’d have a whole extra range of opinions about him. But, our lives were always kind of separate, and I can say truthfully that he was never a jerk to me.

There was one time when I said I was curious about the big towers you can see over West Lake Hills, and what was at the base of them. “Let’s find ‘em!” he said, and drove me over to where they stood. The whole time, he was very clearly pretending to be trying to find something that he’d visited on at least one and probably more occasions, like he was groping blindly. He was pretending to be experiencing it the first time, because it was new to me. I kind of recognize it because I’ve gone to movies with people and pretended I haven’t seen it yet even when I have, because then you can kind of feel like you’re sharing a new experience with someone. It’s totally misguided but shows you’re thinking about the other person, so I let him pretend he’d never been there before either. Thinking about it now, two things seem completely obvious: that Anthony would have raced out on his own to investigate those towers, just because they were there, and that without Anthony showing me where they were, I never would have.

Being a writer, I’ve come up with all sorts of fanciful ways to ease the heartbreak of losing my friend and brother. Anthony was asleep when he died, and I wondered, was he dreaming when it happened? What if he dreamed that someone approached him and said, “Well, Anthony. You’re all done here. You can stick around on Earth if you want, or do you want to come and see the next horizon?” After making sure that his friends and loved ones would be okay and his dog would be cared for, I can easily imagine that Anthony would have boldly strode forward, saying, “I’m ready.”

To wrap this up, I’d like to cycle back to where I started. When John Lennon died, someone shoved a microphone in Paul McCartney’s face and asked him to comment, and he said, “It’s a drag.” He was unfairly pilloried for this remark, and at one point in this last month I kind of felt moved to reclaim it as a perfectly legitimate thing to say. I wrote a simple song called “It’s a drag”, which I’m not going to sing because I’m not really a singer, but I’ll read you some of the lyrics.

It’s a Drag
It’s a drag that you’re not here now
It’s a drag that you are gone
It’s a drag that now that you’ve checked out
I still have to go on.

It’s a drag that you’re not here now
to laugh at my best jokes.
It’s a drag that there’s no friend here now
to fix my bicycle spokes.

It’s a drag, my friend, you’ve moved on
but I think you won the game.
For you learned it was love, and good, good friends
Not money, power, or fame.

It’s a drag that you’re not here now
Not for you, but for us, your friends
For you, there’s no drag, just the wind at your back,
on a highway that never ends.


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