The world is emptier tonight. A little less bright and a little less hopeful.
I am learning new dimensions of pain. I have lost a best friend and the world has lost a unique and great person. It’s not easy.
I am still stricken with grief, blind with running tears and lonely, terribly lonely. And I am not sure that words can ever describe how I feel, or if I’ll come at the other end of this story coherent at all. I am sure I won’t sound complete by the end of it.
We’ll all read in the next few days about Jeff Carlton the writer, the reporter, the UVA alumnus, and the sports aficionado. But I have had a different experience with Jeff. I knew Jeff, the man, the friend, the devoted confidant, the loving son and brother. I will talk about things few people knew or maybe fewer people noticed.
The man had a “Vault” where he kept all his secrets (you know, Seinfeld style). He told me when I first met him that he “doesn’t just let anyone in the Vault. He lets secrets out one at a time, carefully”. Well, after two condensed years of friendship, that felt like 20 years or a lifetime, I feel like he blew the Vault wide open for me, and let everything bleed out. I have had the fortune, and incredible honor and privilege to know Jeff in ways maybe his parents or brothers didn’t know him. With me, he allowed himself to be vulnerable, weak, strong, stubborn, but also funny, serious, impatient, devoted, sincere, giving, and sometimes quite a bit of a nuisance, too. Never a jerk. Never a bore nor commonplace. Never.
Some of the things I have learned from him and about him will probably go to my grave, with me, because he wanted them “kept in the Vault”. And they’ll stay there.
Loneliness, tears and pain brought us together and made us friends forever. Happiness, joy and unconditional friendship sealed that bond.
I have learned more lessons from him in 2 years that I have learned from life in 33. He lived short. But he lived intensely. He did everything with passion and dedication. He never wasted time. He laughed hard and loud and often. Even if he didn’t feel like laughing, he always smiled. I could not find one picture of him either not talking or not smiling. He was always in mid-sentence and mid-thought. He met everything with a sense of humor. Especially pain!
Always active, and always cooking up some thought. His mind worked overtime, for sure, like he knew he was running out of hours. He loved everything he believed in, and he believed in having fun, being honest, being loving and generous, and in The Phillies, of course (I know that much!). Oh, and being Conservative, too. How he ever survived our Newsroom, I do not know!
Some people said they argued with him on everything. Some said they found at least one thing in common with him, he was that diverse. I did both!
We both loved mashed potatoes, long road trips, U2, good spelling, a cold pillow, and no tomatoes on the sandwich, please. We argued about politics (mostly), the music of the 80’s (I am sorry, but it DOES suck, Jeff!!), about how often he should call his doctor, and about leaving the dog out in the rain.
He was so contradictory, and such a “whole” person, all in all. He lived fully, but quietly. He had no patience for computers, faulty chairs, slow drivers and small airline seats. But he never, ever, not ONCE, lost his patience in trying so hard to explain baseball to me. He did it time and again, with the stoicism of Sisyphus. Nevermind my impossibility to wrap my head around that one. He never once made fun of that or gave up trying to teach me! He used to tell me: "A whole American nation GETS baseball, you'll get it too!". I only wish! I promise I’ll read the book, too, Mr. Jeff, and that I’ll get it, one day!! One day, when we’ll meet again, we’ll both watch a game and you can quiz me. I’ll pass, I promise.
I had a lot of “firsts” with Jeff. No, not “that” kind of “firsts”, but these kind: he took me to my first Major League ballgame, my first soccer and my first hockey game. I loved them all, because I could enjoy them through his eyes! He breathed and lived every game, with nonchalance, fun and a scary (to me) amount of knowledge. Like a fish in the water, he was most at home in the arena. It was fascinating to me to watch him watch every move, every play, and predict almost every game. Well, with the exception of The Phillies, of course.
He was the first man to ever not be afraid of sassing me back. My sarcasm was a cause of divorce in my marriage; it was a requirement to be his friend. I loved him for it! He’d say: “Don’t you sass me, I’ll sass you right back”; and he did. Or “sarcasm is a must to be my friend”. Always witty and original. The most I’ll miss is the way we cracked each other up. Never taking anything defensively, but always talking smack, lovingly and endearingly. I’ll miss his blue eyes, and his well-defined dimples and his writer’s hands. I’ll miss his bear hugs!
The part I am not going to miss is the pain I knew he was in. I am happy and grateful that he’s running free, where gates fling wide open, without broken latches on them, in which he can cut his hand.
The most I learned from him was about pain and accepting it with grace. I learned also about courage and the kind of facing every day like it was your last one to live. One of the last conversations we had was about strength and how he has it, and he should not be afraid. And strong he was, as I have watched first- hand how he dealt with bad news after bad news, and misfortune after misfortune. He kept smiling. And pushing through! Always smiling.
I feel that I am a better, wiser, more complete person, because he was part of my life. He was one of those people one is only lucky to meet once in a lifetime.
I am not sure what I’ll do with myself next time I want company to Boston Market, or want to go to the dog park. I am not really sure what I’ll do when I want to go to the ballgame to actually watch and understand the game, not just to socialize. I am not sure with what I’ll fill up the minutes of every day when I worried sick about him, and wondered how he was; the minutes we talked on the phone, or the times I’d interrupt his deadline work just to see how he’s feeling. He was a part of my life that’ll never come back now. A part – irreplaceable.
I am glad he never listened to me when I told him not to take a trip last year. Now, I know, you gotta take EVERY opportunity you get to do what you want. Life doesn’t give you second chances, and he’s a fine example of that. So, take it or leave it, as hard as it is.
He made me realize once more that riches don’t consist of bank accounts. His wisdom, compassionate understanding of humans, and unconditional friendship made him one of the richest people I know!
And above all, he was humble. He was private, and he kept things fearfully in the “Vault”… I think I was the only human, that I knew in our brief time together, to ever pry the Vault, and he helplessly allowed it. You never knew just how much he suffered. And you never knew how much he hurt. He wanted to keep YOU happy. He was thoughtful and caring. And through it all he used to say, with his innate self-mockery “It’s always about me, you know!”. He made it seem that way, but it wasn’t. I will never forget his last words to me: he wanted me to say ‘hi’ to my cats. On his dying bed, he wanted to greet the cats … He was like that. He died quietly, as he lived, but painfully, as he lived also.
The pain of the emptiness I feel is making my chest hurt. I cannot breathe, and I am not really sure what’s going to fix this.
There will never be another Jeff Carlton. I was lucky, fortunate, blessed beyond belief to have him in my life. He gave me two years of friendship, love, courage, togetherness, understanding, pain and healing. And mostly, he’s taught me forgiveness and hope.
Good bye, my dearest, and I miss you much, always, with love …!
Happier times. My favorite album of pictures of Jeff and Floyd.