Cascading down through the years like a beautiful ribbon marking the pages of my life, our friendship spanned far longer than our two lifetimes and therefore does not recognize mortality. Having already been accustomed to our long-distance relationship, I find that this existence without him continues without paper, pen, or phone.
But it has been almost 60 years since I first saw him. I vividly recall that my eight-year-old-self stopped breathing and that very second remains memorialized for me. With absolutely nothing to go on but generational memory, I recognized him.
Of course it was a Western. Having been obsessed with horses since birth, I was an avid viewer of Westerns; luckily for me, they were in vogue at the time. But I directed my mother’s attention to the television. I insisted that I knew the person on the screen. No explanation of hers could change my mind. Was it a coincidence that he was Irish, too, and only second generation American, as I am?
Born in 1923, all of the important events in his life seemed to have taken place before I arrived on this earth in 1953. But I think the fact that the death of his only child occurred early in the same year that I was born appeared to have been the main catalyst for our relationship. All I know is that for almost forty years, our lives intersected and overlapped. He told me that he always kept all my letters, from my childish scrawls to my wedding invitation and birth announcements of the children. I know that there were sadnesses, self-reproaches, and regrets that he just could not get past, but our friendship seemed to offer him some solace.
After that first shock of recognition, I was quick to find out when he was guest starring on a television series, and whenever there seemed to be a lull in his activity, I would send him letters asking about recent auditions, subtly and sometimes not so subtly encouraging. As time passed and he seemed to get steady work but was still not a household name, he started to write back. Our love of horses and my participation in show jumping competitions was always a favorite topic. Consistently supportive, congratulatory, and sometimes cautionary, he was a perfect paternal figure for a child who had none.
Around the time that I graduated from high school, his big break came – his own series. I delighted in his fame, his picture on the cover of magazines, but mostly in the fact that his letters arrived more often. As the series grew in popularity and seemed to have settled in for a long run, he called me several times a year from the set. Because he had creative control over each episode, he often had the writers put a character with my name in the script, to my great delight.
His death felt like the sand being pulled out from under my feet by an ocean wave, only this ocean wave was dark, forbidding, and heavy. I was bereft until one night I had a dream in which we walked along the beach, and talked as usual. When it was time to leave, he turned to me and said, “Meet me where you always do.” It took me several days to figure this out, but I did.
We met, and continue to meet, in our hearts.