He was cooler than me. Something we both understood but never really talked about. Maybe because it was so patently obvious. He was laid back. Smart but not nerdy. Hard-working but not overbearing. Quiet and thoughtful. I was obnoxious. Loud. So unsure of myself and desperate for attention I’d do whatever it took to get it, and if that included stupidly picking fights with the biggest kid in class, so be it.
Yet Lester Pitts was always there. Sometimes playing peacemaker, a role which often included him asking whichever classmate I had egged on to have mercy on the scrawny punk with the bowl cut. Usually it worked. When it didn’t _ like say, the time in 5th or 6th grade when I made the mistake of looking down in the middle of a fight (a move I made at the request of the guy I was fighting) just in time to see a knee heading straight for my nose _ Lester pleaded with his older sister to break it up in hopes of keeping whatever remained of my face intact.
(Thanks Tonda, btw. If you hadn’t stepped in my nose would probably look like a “C”).
We grew up 100 feet from each other. A bond forged by proximity more than anything, though there’s little doubt no matter when or where we would have met, we would have been friends. I want to say it’s because of some sort of innate cosmic connection (and maybe there is one) but the reality is that pretty much everybody that ever met Lester Eugene Pitts Jr. was drawn to him. It was impossible not to be won over by his sincerity, his almost relentless good nature and his almost absurd lack of ego.
And now he’s gone, passing away on Monday less than two months after his 42nd birthday, leaving behind his wife Cathy, his daughter Ara and a hole in those that knew him, those that loved him, one that left me gasping for air.
I can’t remember the last time I saw him in person. Maybe 10 years ago. Probably more. Not that it mattered. His friendship _ one that spanned nearly four decades _ is a part of the firmament of my life, an intractable and cherished part of my childhood. I’ve known him longer than anyone not related to me by blood. We met when we were 3, when my parents bought that house on Anne Marie Circle and unleashed me into the wild.
My memories remain vivid. Of Big Wheel races (he had a green Incredible Hulk one with a bucket seat), football games and hundreds of walks home from the bus stop. Of his fear of dogs no matter how small. Of the way his eyes would well up with tears during the rare occasion when it looked like he was going to have to fight, his courage and need to stick up for himself outweighing his fear. It’s funny, not once _ not one time _ can I remember him actually using those raised fists in anger and never _ ever _ at me, which is a testament to his patience more than anything. I was so mixed up and insecure as a kid I probably would have picked a fight with my shadow if allowed.
Through the years our social circles changed. He became _ without even trying, without even changing _ one of the cool kids. And it wasn’t his clothes or his athletic prowess. It was just him. We never talked about it but there had to have been times when it was difficult growing up as one of the few black kids in an almost exclusively white neighborhood, but it hardly mattered. He was almost universally popular while I floated somewhere between dork and geek.
Our circle of friends expanded _ his more than mine _ but he never made me feel inadequate. The anxiety I normally felt (and still do feel) in certain situations evaporated when he was around. We could talk about anything. Sports. Girls. Music. He put me at ease. In high school his locker became a sanctuary in those chaotic 10 minutes between when the buses would arrive and first bell would ring. I was tractor beamed to him, sometimes using the excuse I needed to copy his homework (which he always did and I never did) when the reality was I just needed a place to dock my nerves because _ at least in my mind _ I had nowhere else to go. He never told me to get lost. Never avoided me. Never made me feel inferior (which in the stratified culture that only high school provides, I almost certainly was, at least in a social sense).
His friendship became a sort of currency. The picture at the top of this post is from 6th grade. I’d forgotten I’d written “My Friend” in the margin until my wife pointed it out. I have no idea why I did it, though I suspect it was to prove to myself that I had made friends with someone who had “made it.” (He was also voted Most Likely to Succeed that year, which means even at 11 the kids at John Hanson Middle School had at least a dose of common sense).
We went to different colleges and carved our own life paths, though we’d see each other at the bowling alley, a random restaurant or the increasingly infrequent pickup basketball games (though we were about the same height, he had an impossible _ and I mean impossible _ to block jump shot in which he would somehow throw the ball straight into the air, a parabola that would end more often than not with the ball splashing through the net).
I am terrible at maintaining friendships. I don’t call. I don’t write. I don’t text. Yet with Lester it never felt that we lost touch. It felt like we were just out living life. That we’d catch up whenever we’d get around to it. His place in my life, my heart, remains intractable.
We reconnected on Facebook several years ago and our lives moved in near lockstep. We got married around the same time. Started a family around the same time. He talked trash about his beloved Georgetown Hoyas. Or the Yankees. Or Notre Dame football. (Note: his attraction toward brand name sports entities may have been his only character flaw).
We even got sick around the same time. Me with cancer. Lester with kidney and other concerns. We used it as an opportunity to get healthy. We lost weight. We took better care of ourselves. We watched our diet. We posted the occasional note of encouragement to each other, still kind of shaking our heads about our brushes with our own mortality when we were _ almost certainly in our brains _ still those 9-year-olds playing”Invisible Football” at the bus stop.
He was due for a kidney transplant in early July, a blessing that would provide him with decades of good health and a chance to see Ara grow up. He was building a dream house that _ while much larger than the one he lived in as a kid _ would hopefully provide Ara with a chance to make the kind of friendships that last a lifetime.
And just like that, he was taken from us. The grief is crippling in a way I can’t fully explain. I’ve had close people die to me in recent years, but nothing quite like this.
Maybe it’s because I’d always taken the idea we’d catch up eventually for granted. Maybe it’s because I never really did get a chance to tell him as adults how grateful I was for his friendship as a kid, a gesture he would have done his best to brush off and downplay. Maybe it’s because we’re at the same spot in our lives. Our illnesses gave us perspective and energy.
We were always going to be friends for life. I just didn’t expect this part to end so soon.
He will be laid to rest this weekend, a notion that seems unfathomable. A portion _ a happy, cherished portion _ of my childhood will go with him.
It’s too soon. It’s not fair. It’s never going to be not fair.
Yet maybe I have it wrong. Maybe this is part of the plan. Here’s why:
My favorite story about Lester, the one that to me crystallizes both of us, is from when we were in elementary school. One day, the kids in the neighborhood decided to race bikes around the block. Down Anne Marie Circle, around Temi Drive, up Country Road to the top of the hill and around back to the circle.
I wanted to win. Badly. My Huffy with the No. 42 was in front. I want to say I won, though maybe that’s just the fog of memory. Lester, in his red BMX, was in the pack behind us. One by one we crossed the finish line. All except for Lester. One minute passed. Then two. Then five. Eventually he comes riding up the street with a smile on his face and something in his hand.
It was a $100 bill. While the rest of us were hauling ass in search of bragging rights, he kept his eyes open. Rounding a corner he saw something in the grass near the sidewalk. He bailed on the race, turned around, and went to see what it was, combing yard after yard until he found the money just lying there.
That was Lester. Always seeing the big picture. Maybe that’s what he’s doing now, getting a head start so he can smooth the path for the rest of us on the way to what’s next.
When I heard the news on Monday, my 7-year-old son Colin was across the street playing catch with his friend Michael. I could hear their laughter in the breeze. If they are lucky _ really lucky, like lottery winning kinda lucky _ maybe they will form a brotherhood that will span the decades and the distance.
A brotherhood like the one I shared with my first best friend. Thirty-nine years of having him in my life wasn’t nearly enough. Then again, 139 years wouldn’t have been enough either.
It’s tempting to end with something like this but I can’t do it. Lester would have told us to dry our tears and get the party started. So let’s.
God bless you my brother. For everything.