This blog is written by a friend from my hometown. Matt O’Connor, one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. It’s a brief piece written after the passing of our dear friend, Todd Kosloski. One of the best people I’ve had the honor of knowing and a proud son of Amherst, Massachusetts. The message isn’t necessarily about Todd but how his passing made him (and us) realize the bonds between us all and not taking them for granted. It’s no secret that many of us from Amherst have strong bonds going back to early childhood. But it hasn’t been sufficiently put into words, until now. Matt was kind enough to let me share what he wrote after he sent it to Sandi and myself. I couldn’t agree more with his sentiment and happy to say I’ve mustered up the emotions to let my friends (and family for that matter) know how I feel, which isn’t easy for a cocky group of (mostly) guys. The first time was November of 1990 after our last high school football game together and the second was at Todd’s bedside, about a week prior to his passing last year. Thanks for the words Oak.
“Late last year, I traveled back to my roots to say goodbye to an old friend who was taken too soon. The trip was a bit surreal, on one hand an overdue reunion of a pretty close knit group and solid bunch of people, on the other hand an uncomfortable realization that the days of our youth were officially well behind us. Most of us had dealt with the passing of family members, and some even with the loss of a parent, but almost none had fathomed the thought of losing a friend who had not yet reached forty years old. I cannot begin to count how many times I heard (or said), “good to see you, just wish it was under better circumstances”, which was almost always followed by a hug or a firm handshake, and sometimes even a quick version of the “man hug”. If you’re not familiar with the man hug then unfortunately you may not know people who value friendship quite as much as those I grew up with, or people who despite moving in dozens of different directions will always genuinely consider each other friends.
As the initial gathering of friends and family moved from visiting hours at the Funeral Home, to a favorite local watering hole for the Patriots-Jets game, the mood transformed, albeit temporarily, from melancholy to reminiscence. Although watching a football game under such circumstances may seem trivial or even inappropriate to some, those of us in attendance could say with 100% certainty that our departed friend would have wanted nothing more. In what we chalked up as sure sign from above the Patriots rolled over the Jets that day, and we toasted our old friend who watched over us, and who was undoubtedly pleased to see that those who knew, respected, and loved him, were again together in our hometown cheering on New England sports teams.
That evening found many of us again gathered together at an old stomping ground up the road, where some friends took the stage and played guitar while others mingled and reconnected after years apart. Stories of our friend Todd were of course shared, ranging from his unflappable toughness on the football field to the constant smile and gentle nature he displayed among friends. For many of us, Todd, his wife Sandi, and their respective families, exemplified the values of our childhood and the core foundation of our hometown. They could be seen at nearly every town function, not only cheering on the kids but constantly working behind the scenes doing everything from setting up and manning concession stands to refereeing and working the chains. Most importantly, at least in my opinion, they weren’t there solely to support their own children, they cheered for every kid, from every family, and they understood that without unwavering effort from people like them, these games simply would not have gone on. The fields had to be lined, the clocks needed to work, the food had to be warm, and when necessary the Kosloski’s and the Bardwell’s would stay there all day and night to make sure that happened. I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that these people literally helped make the memories of our childhood possible, and character like that is what brought us all back together to honor one of their own.
As the crowd at the Seven O’s thinned that night, old friends made sure that all had safe rides home, as it would not be unfair to say that even in our childhood this group knew how to have a good time. Few, if any, found it necessary to mention that most of us would see each other again the next morning for the scheduled funeral service, but all were inevitably aware of the fact that when life presents us with difficult and inexplicable situations, the value of a support network like this one cannot be overstated.
As I awoke and dressed the next morning at my Dad and Stepmom’s house, I traded text messages with a particular friend who I have been blessed to know and have in my life for almost 25 years now. I met this friend early in our teen years, and although we lost touch for brief periods of time throughout college and early adulthood, we have always found a way to reconnect. While she attended college in Pennsylvania I stayed close to home at UMass, and as she bravely ventured into the Big Apple I bolted for the warmth and laid back style of the South. Throughout that time, despite drastically different paths, we managed to keep in touch sporadically, and in a matter of a few minutes we’d catch up with each other’s lives. In recent years we have made a point to do that more frequently, and while busy routines inevitably get in the way, we’ve found that with a shared effort it’s always possible. On this morning, as I shook off the cobwebs of the previous day and discovered that I really had no clue how to get to the funeral service, this friend thankfully suggested that I meet her at her parent’s house along the way and we could ride over to the church together.
That simple suggestion from this longtime friend, coupled with the emotional and difficult events of the next few hours, helped lead an often simple minded guy like myself to a series of revelations. As we sat through the service, I watched and listened to another longtime friend perform the most difficult task I might ever imagine, in eulogizing a high quality man who may never have fully realized what he meant to those who knew him. As a whirlwind of memories and thoughts ensued, I did my best to understand the process and situation, and in doing so some important things became clearer to me than they have ever been before. One of those things, coincidentally, was best summarized by this friend an hour or so later, when I left the service with her and her mother.
As we walked towards the car, this friend mentioned that she has met all kinds of different people from different places and backgrounds throughout her years, but she has never met a group like the one we have in Amherst. The loyalty, commitment, and genuine bond that this group of people share is unlike any other that she has encountered, and despite making friends all up and down the East Coast I too have yet to find anyone who remains as in touch and in tune with the lives and times of a large bunch of old middle school and high school friends. It is truly an enjoyable and proud feeling to be a part of such a unique group of people, who despite going their separate ways with often years in between seeing each other, can pick back up and rib each other like we were still in high school.
With a return flight scheduled later that afternoon I needed to head towards the highway, and this friend rode with me briefly while her Mom followed, until the roads forked and I needed to head off towards Providence. I got out of the car to give her a hug and say goodbye, and at that moment I decided it was necessary to simply say, “I love you”. I’m honestly not sure why I’ve never told her that before, as I’m pretty certain I’ve loved her for more than 2 decades now, but with a newfound realization that life is sometimes too damn short, I wanted to make sure she knew there was no doubt. Almost instinctively she replied with “I love you too”, and perhaps she thought nothing further about it, but I was never concerned with whether or not she’d say it back or if she felt she had to, I simply needed her to know that she was and always will be someone I love.
As I spent the next few hours on a quiet drive to the airport, I contemplated why it took me so long to tell this particular friend how I felt, and why in our society there seems to be such an aura and a stigma attached to these three little words. In many families it is rarely discussed, but it’s generally implied that these words are reserved for your spouse or your family members, and as a married man, there’s an almost inexplicable feeling of guilt or shame in telling another woman that you love her. Even more so, there is a discomfort and a mostly unspoken understanding between men that you just don’t express this level of emotion. While I have not yet determined a logical and acceptable method for breaking the barrier between men, I believe I have taken the first step by acknowledging to this female friend, and to myself, that it’s okay to love her and certainly okay to tell her that.
I am not a visionary, nor am I a man who warrants any more of your attention than any other man, but for those willing and able to listen I have a simple recommendation. If there are people in your life you genuinely care about, those who you know you’d go to the ends of the earth for if the need ever arose, then find a way to let them know how you feel. The timing may never be right, and you may feel some level of awkwardness in doing it, but life may not always afford you the opportunity to tell them later. Set aside the fears and the stigmas, and offer them three little words; “I love you”. It may not cause you to reflect about it quite as much as I have, but one thing will be certain. You will be glad you said it, I guarantee it.”