I was sitting on a bench at the National Tennis Center, watching a group of very young kids training under the scrutiny of a coach that had certain renown. This man in particular was a person I loathed, and the reason was simple: he was truly insulting towards his young pupils. He was the kind of man that would pin offensive nicknames to any and all the young kids but, having coached a national tennis celebrity, some parents simply felt he knew about the sport and this was part of raising the next big champ. Watching this training session I was witness to his full repertoire of insults towards the little kids, and without thinking, I voiced out loud: “If I were one if these kids’ dads, I would kill this guy”.
A gentleman standing about 5 meters away from me turned around and looking at me said, also out loud: “I am the father of that little kid out there” and he pointed at one of the young ones. In the split moment that he paused, I felt I had crossed some fictional line and I was in for a heated argument, because I sure as heck would not back down from my statement. But the man finished his train of thought when he said: “And I was thinking the same thing you just said”.
As we were at the NTC, he invited me to play and we hit some balls for a while. He was a self-taught player and his strokes and game were below my level, but we had a good time. He asked me for my phone so we could play again and, after I gave it to him, he did call. What had been an off-the-cuff remark slowly became a friendship that revolved initially around the sport but lately became a family thing. “L” was a fun guy, a man of great friendship qualities, a quick wit and flamboyant generosity. In the vein of Will Rogers, I never met a person that did not like L, and there were plenty of reasons for that. He was not a man of perfection but his infrequent screw ups were fixed with a quick laugh, an arm wrapped around a shoulder and a further smile; it was hard to be mad at the man for more than minutes.
His son, L Jr, became a good sparring partner; a young kid with an almost maniac delight to get to the net, he and I played a similar game of serve and volley which he rode all the way to a college scholarship. But until he grew up, the speed of his dad’s friend was a bit too much for him to handle initially. On one occasion, after hitting a deft serve and drawing me wide, he hit a gorgeous soft drop volley at the net and, with the cockiness of the young, turned his back to the ball in a matter-of-fact state. He was unable to see me reach the ball and scoop it for a winner and then, when his dad burst laughing, he turned around to watch me claim the point and asked his dad for confirmation. “Of course he got to it, you forgot who he is?” dad said. He never again did that and pretty soon crossed the Rubicon of beating me, handily. It simply felt the right thing to happen.
Our tales were related to tennis, our mutual love and joy. The stories were plenty: the passing shot that he once hit and yelled, a bit too early, a roaring “YES!”, only for my lunging volley to make it into the corner. He would laugh at those occasions, in the same way that the day that we were playing some doubles and he would not stop talking (he was particularly gregarious) I told him to shut up and play. He was not a man without a temper but he knew when to check it at the door. Slowly I got to meet the whole family, was invited to weddings and anniversaries, gave advice to his young kids when they grew up and also became sort of little-siblings/now-friends. A few words uttered in what I thought was a private musing led to one of the few true friendships in my life.
We kept in touch when I left the country, which he did too soon after. His residence was in the USA, and mine in Colombia, but the miracle of technology kept us in touch. With age he mellowed a bit more and started the habit of sending silly forwarded messages, many of them on the corny side but always welcomed. For some reason, and as I can still read them, he sent continuous texts of how great it was to have friends, how this was the most wonderful thing a man could have. This last Xmas he sent a friendly text again talking about how friendships made a man’s wealth, to which I simply replied that it was good to be his friend and that if friends were indeed a measure of a man’s treasure, he was truly rich.
I did mean it.
It was always good to play tennis with L, but the circumstances of our nation made the physical separation unavoidable; all my real friends are somewhere else in the world but L was special because he was the one I played tennis the most with. It mattered little that he was not up to my level; the matches were fun and the real enjoyment was the pizza and beer after the match, the conversation about how the lives were going. The memories of the tennis are mixed with so many more they are really memories of a live lived on a court, or a court that interrupted lives.
A few hours ago, I received a message from L. I was a bit busy but I saw his avatar flash on the screen and, knowing that it would be one of his silly messages, decided to finish what I was doing and then read whatever fun nonsense he was sending me. But it wasn’t. It was a message from his wife, telling me that L passed away on Tuesday, a fatal heart attack claiming him. I sat on my chair, and when the tears came, I welcomed them. L had been too good a friend for me to simply say that life is this way, for me to be stoic about this departure. I replied to her telling him what I now believe is the sole thing one can say to a person that has lost a loved one: may all your memories of him be lovely, may you cry him with all the love you can muster inside each and every tear. I know I will.
At times like this, the usual advice is to remember how precious every moment with any loved one is, how scarce and frugal those minutes can be. But not this time; those things are well known and recanting them may be pedantic, even a bit presumptuous. The last messages exchanged with L will not be deleted from my phone as they say exactly that. But I will not repeat them; in a way, the love and friendship I have for L must force me to look deeper into what we shared, and it comes down to just a simple guidance:
If a stranger asks you to play some tennis with him/her, by all means, say yes. You never know how good a friend you may meet.