A story about a car, friendship and goodbyes

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1967-cadillac-fleetwood-john-james
This is the story of a car. And friendship. And time.

The car you’re looking at is a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood. My best friend had a clone of that car. I met him when I was in Grade 11 – that would have been the fall of 1983. He’d transferred into my high school from another one just a few blocks away and I even remember the first thing he ever said to me – “Hey man, can I bum a cigarette?”

We were standing outside the freak doors – that’s what everyone at my high school called the set of doors up the hill from the gym. Freak doors because that’s where all the freaks would hang out. (I know, the very notion that teenagers actually used to smoke cigarettes on school property is likely foreign to anyone under the age of thirty, but I’m 46 and it was 1983.) Anyway, I can’t remember what led me to decide this guy with wild afro style hair, big sideburns and a long leather duster would be worth getting into a conversation with but there was a twinkle in his eye and an earnestness to his voice that made me decide to hand over a cigarette. I remember that he commented on my Zippo lighter and then he fished one out of the pocket of his duster. Oh … he was wearing a leather cowboy hat and he took it off – that’s how I knew he had a white guy afro.

Our talk about our lighters led to me saying that I almost lost mine when I was at Calgary’s World of Wheels auto show that spring. BOOM! A common interest. I was a classic car nut (and still am) and so was he. He told me his name and I learned that he was in Grade 12 so he was a year and a half older than me and could drive to school each day. I commented that I drove to school too and was the proud owner of a 1972 Pontiac Acadian that burned a quart of oil every week. I remember him saying, “where did you park?” and I told him. He said his car was parked in the same lot and he said, “I’ve got a Caddy.” I called BS immediately and he said, he’d prove it to me so off we went to the student parking lot and it was there that I laid eyes on this beauty of a car. Little did I know that a 1967 Cadillac, a bummed cigarette and a Zippo lighter would lead to a thirty-year friendship that has endured through our collective ups and downs.

I’m reminded now, at 46, that time is a fleeting thing you truly don’t even attempt to quantify when you’re 16. The mere notion that you’re an actual mortal doesn’t even register – particularly when you’re bombing around the streets of Calgary while riding shotgun in a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood. Dear God, what a car that was. You could sneak five people into the drive-in in the trunk of that land yacht. And Jesus, it was fast. It also didn’t burn a quart of oil a week, so that was a bonus too.

He graduated high school that year, 1984. I graduated a year later. We basically hung out together every single weekend. Driving around the city. Looking at old cars. Smoking and joking and talking about girls, metal and of course automobiles.  He helped me upgrade to a better car – a 1972 Dodge Monaco with 70K miles on it. Five hundred bucks. We popped the hood, started it up and I remember seeing his lips arch up into a mischievous smile. He said, “Sean … buy this car.” And so I did.

I joined the army in the summer of 1985. I’d just graduated from high school. There were no jobs due to the recession. My friend lived at home with his mum in Whitehorn, a new community in Calgary’s North East. I did my basic training and wound up getting posted to Calgary for the next seven years. Life continued on as it had before – we hung out together on weekends. We smoked and joked. And drank probably too much for anyone’s good. I got married. He got married. I had kids. He didn’t. I got divorced. He didn’t and is still with his wife of more than twenty years.

I got posted to Atlantic Canada for about a decade. We didn’t talk very often because I was there and he was somewhere else. I wound up back in Calgary in 2003 and we just picked up where we left off. Talking cars. Hanging out. Being friends.

But that whole time is fleeting thing has hit home in the last year. My friend is dying. He’s suffering from Pick’s disease – a neurodegenerative condition that shares many symptoms with Alzheimers. I’m losing him. His wife is losing him. I’m losing my best friend and I’m angry about it. I’m really fucking angry about it. We were supposed to be friends well into our old age. We were supposed to go fishing, wear pants up to our armpits and complain about the government. We were supposed to …  insert life experience here.

I’m angry because my friend is a good person. I mean a genuinely good person. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He would absolutely 100% give you his last ten dollars if you asked for it . Period. He is a simple person who has for all his life somehow managed to maintain that measure of childlike wonder we all lose as we grow older. He’s just plain good.

I went to Calgary last spring when I learned about his condition and I could tell that even though the disease was in its early stages, it had changed him. He walks with a cane. He’s lost sight in one eye. He can’t remember a lot of what made he and I the best of friends. The last thing he told me as I hopped into my car last Victoria Day weekend broke my heart. (It still does.) He said, “Look … Sean … I don’t know how much longer I’ve got.”

And I cut him off. I raised a hand and cut him off because I wasn’t prepared to discuss his dying. I said, “I know … just day by day, brother. Day by day.”

We Skype now. And every time I see him on my screen, I know I’m losing my best friend. It’s more noticeable now because his wife is doing most of the talking. But my friend still has that twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face. He’s still there … I can see it in his eyes.  I just don’t know for how much longer.

I’m going to visit him in the next little while. I’ll just sit across the living room and be there because he was there through all my trials and tribulations. He is a better friend to me than I ever was to  him and that probably makes me an asshole on a galactic scale.

I think I will take him for a drive when I go to see him if his wife gives me the all clear. We’ll bomb around the city, this time with my friend riding shotgun. We’ll look at cars in the car lots and maybe we might even catch a glimpse of a 1967 Fleetwood Cadillac. I want to do this before it’s too late. I need to do this while he still has that twinkle in his one good eye because I’ll know that he’ll know that he is my best friend … the best friend I could have ever hoped for.

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