I wish you had met Rick. Your life might have been changed just a little bit. He was born and raised not too far from my home in a nearby village, but we didn’t get to know one another until both of us ended up in the same class at a community college. It was only after each of us in the class had to stand up and introduce ourselves to one another that I realized there was at least one more person who was from same area as I was.
He was shy. I wasn’t.
Rick recalled that day in an essay he wrote some thirty years later.
“ After class he stopped me, and mentioned that he and I were not far apart where our home towns were concerned, and how we should both get together one of these days, and I said yes, of course we should, thinking to myself who the hell is this idiot who sounds like a game show host? He sounds so artificial. Yeah, we’ll get together. Right. He doesn’t really mean we ever should. How wrong I was…”
Not much of a start for a friendship that lasted nearly forty years. But it was a beginning point. We proved that first impression wrong by establishing a bond that endured community college, baccalaureate degrees, marriage, children, jobs, moves, health problems, and finally annual visits to his hometown.
In the same essay, he would write, “I was me, and I was his friend, and that’s what mattered.”
Ours was what I would call an unconditional friendship. He knew that I’d be there through thick and thin. I knew that I could reach out anytime and there would be a listening ear.
Rick was legally blind. He could see, but his vision was limited. He couldn’t drive. He tried to sit close to the front of the college classroom so that he could see the blackboard and overhead projector pages. When I first met him he had really thick glasses. Later his vision improved with corrective surgery.
While some may see that as a disability, Rick never let it get in the way of pursuing his many talents such as writing poetry and prose, composing music, playing the guitar and keyboard, studying ministry, and singing.
He even wrote a song about my part time job on the local radio station called Someone’s Listening. I’ve used portions of the lyrics, with his permission, in two of my books.
After college he worked for several years at a preschool in suburban Rochester. He loved the work, and the children loved him. A couple he met while at another college became lifelong friends. He was their Thanksgiving guest for well over thirty years, even outlasting the couple’s marriage.
He later became more involved with his church, First Presbyterian in Boonville, New York. He took on an active role in the lay ministry. He took courses and was commissioned as a Lay Preacher. He frequently led services on Sunday at his home church, and occasionally took on assignments at other faith communities when needed.
For many years when I lived in the Rochester area, Rick and I established a Black Friday tradition. We’d go out for a couple of beers on that Friday after Thanksgiving.
As the years progressed, we moved the venue from a barroom to a coffee shop and drank coffee for a couple of hours. We spoke by phone and saw each other throughout the year, but there was something special about getting together over coffee on that first day of the holiday shopping season.
When my wife and I moved to the other side of the country, I made it a point to see Rick on my annual visits back to my hometown. Several years ago, he called me a few days before he was going in to the hospital for heart surgery. He survived the surgery, and coped with heart and then kidney problems in later years.
He became a dialysis patient in the final years of his life. My visits in recent years were always scheduled on non-dialysis days. We stayed close to his apartment by having coffee and lunch at Burger King.
But our times at the local Burger King drinking coffee and eating a fish or chicken sandwich were much more than just two friends catching up. Sure, we talked about our families, critiqued the latest music from one of our favorites in the 1970s era, or complained about national politics regardless of which party was in office.
But we also talked about God, we talked about life, and we talked about death.
We tried to fill the time between in-person visits with whatever communication tools we had. There were birthday phone calls, notes accompanying one of my books or his music CD, and our ongoing email messages.
My written messages to him always ended with the phrase, “friend through the end.” I guess that on a subconscious level I was reassuring him that his first impression of me wasn’t the real deal.
In 2013 while visiting my dad in early November, I again made plans to visit Rick. This time, he told me to come to the local rehabilitation center where he was recovering from yet another complication related to dialysis. We had to sign him out of the center for the few hours that we’d be away at the Burger King having coffee and lunch.
I don’t recall anything unusual about that visit other than Rick telling me how frustrating it was to have to deal with problems related to his dialysis treatments. He had spoken of that before, and this time it didn’t seem to be out of the ordinary for him to talk about his disappointment with this latest barrier to his health.
Later that month, he’d share Thanksgiving again with his friends in the Rochester area. That annual visit was important to him and he wasn’t about to miss it that year.
In December during the Christmas season, my wife and I were visiting our daughter out of state. I thought nothing of checking my personal email account and went into some sort of shock when I read a message telling me Rick had passed away over the weekend.
It was just a little more than a week before Christmas and less than two weeks before his fifty-seventh birthday. I had already purchased a birthday card that I planned to send shortly before the holiday. I ended up sending the card to his parents; I wanted them to know their son would be remembered on his birthday.
I can’t describe what it was like to have a friend like Rick. The words I take so much pride in putting down on paper cannot do justice. I’d rather use his words from the same essay referenced earlier:
“And this friend, he has been with me through all of what I am and what I have experienced. He has been a friend through the worst of me. I wish to God I could have done the same for him.”
Rick had this last part of his essay wrong. Yes, I was there helping him get through all of what he was, what he endured, and what he experienced. But he’s wrong when he says he wishes he could have done the same for me. By living on this Earth those short fifty-seven years, he enriched the lives of so many.
Through his interpretation of Holy Scripture, he brought God to the people, and people to God. Through his love and acceptance of his family, he touched lives in many positive ways.
As my friend, he did the same for me; his example spanned across five decades.
I wish you could have known my friend Rick. (you can read Rick’s obituary at http://www.trainorfuneralhome.com/obituary/Richard-J.-Bellinger/Boonville-NY/1323298.
The essay by Rick referenced in this essay can be found at http://rickwestermanbellinger.wordpress.com/author/rickwestermanbellinger/page/4/ )
Steve Newvine lives in Merced