I had to say goodbye to a dear friend this week. He was just three years older than I am, but his health had been failing for the past several years, so it wasn’t totally unexpected.
I am, however, overwhelmed by the sadness and grief I am experiencing. He lived in my hometown, some 300 miles away, so I didn’t have daily contact with him.
But Johnny Casselberry was an important part of my life, and I feel as if I have lost a piece of myself. Johnny has been my friend since I was a child at Lexington City School. We became close just before I began my freshman year in high school, and Johnny was beginning his senior year.
Johnny, a big bear of a man with an even bigger heart, played football for the high school team. Having a senior football player speak to you in the halls of the high school was a pretty cool deal, and Johnny always did. He loved my family, and my mother loved him, too. So much so, matter of fact, that she asked him to weigh in on whether or not I could date someone older than I was who had a driver’s license. Johnny approved some, vetoed others.
Later, I fell in love with one of Johnny’s good friends. When my heart got broken, Johnny was there. When we patched things up, Johnny was there. When we both moved on, Johnny was there. He never betrayed me or his friend and never took sides. He just offered his understanding and love. He was my sounding board, my anchor, my male perspective when I was full of teenage angst.
Johnny’s happy countenance and sense of humor often led those who knew him only superficially to miss his intense intelligence. He could talk intelligently to anyone about most anything. At my wedding reception, he spent some time talking with my tobacco-farmer relatives from North Carolina. Later they asked me if perhaps Johnny had not spent some time on tobacco farms himself.
Johnny and I would always start our conversations catching up on family matters, for he was very proud of his wife, Betty, his two children and grandchildren, as I always am of my family. But he was a friend who didn’t really know my family well, beyond my hometown relatives, and that was fine. Our talks would catch me up on old friends and then morph into talk about us – what we were doing, how we felt about a variety of things.
That was important to me, I think, to be separate from who I normally was, to know someone so well that worrying about fulfilling expectations could drop away. I certainly didn’t have to worry about being smart or having the right answer because Johnny knew me when I was a know-it-all dumb teenager, the most lethal of all combinations!
I think we all need that person in our lives. It connects us to our younger self and, in many ways, prevents us from believing our own “PR,” stripping away the face we often wear for the world.
I realized at Johnny’s funeral that I could not remember a single time since I left my hometown as an 18-year-old that I did not see or talk to Johnny when I came home, whether that visit was for a summer or a weekend. In the early days, he would come to my house to visit with both me and my mother. After Mother died, I would stop by his house either on my way to my brother’s house or on my way back to Knoxville.
I don’t get to Lexington as often anymore, but I do go occasionally. The next trip home will be hard. Johnny won’t be there for me to visit.
I miss him. Rest well, my sweet, dear friend.