You never forget your very first friend. Mine was a boy named, Justin. We were two years old when we met. He lived up the street from me. We both loved cats, hide and seek, candy and mischief. He was the first friend I had a sleep over with. The first friend I hugged and kissed. The first friend I remember feeling excited to see, to play with, to chase, to share crayons and cookies with.

Justin and I grew up together. We were like brother and sister only minus the fighting. We rode bikes together, skateboarded together, took in stray cats together and slowly watched each other have crushes on people, get drunk and stoned with people, and eventually spend more time with other people.

But he was always my Justin. My brother. My bestie.

When his family moved away in high school I was heartbroken. I didn’t know that would be the moment I would never see him again. I honestly believed he would move back or we would visit. But he was gone.

Life went on, we lost track of each other, but in my heart, he would forever be my best friend. The first to put fingerprints on my tiny spirit.

And then… Facebook. About ten years ago we reconnected on Facebook and we literally picked up where we left off. Only we had a lot of catching up to do. What his life had been like. What mine had been like. The struggles, the darkness, the light. We wrote each other every single day. Long letters. Reminiscing about the days we lived on Beverly Glen. The parties at my house, the crazy characters of our childhood, the absolute chaos and joy. We remembered the details of each others houses, our bedrooms, the color of rugs and wallpaper. We dove into the past like a warm swimming pool and splashed around in the memories of it all never wanting to get out.

I had found my first friend again and I was never going to let him go. He had grown into an amazing artist just as I always knew he would. He was drawing cars and bikes before he could even spell his name. And me, I had become a writer, just as he always knew I would. We were so happy for each other. Fans of each other. THERE for each other.

Our letter writing was intimate, honest, detailed. We revealed our darkest secrets to each other and knew they were safe and without judgment.

Fingerprints on our tiny spirits.

So, when I saw the photograph of Justin posted on his sister’s Facebook page, before I even read what she wrote, my heart was in my throat. I knew it was going to be bad.

Justin died.

Justin… is dead.

I couldn’t breathe. It didn’t seem real. How? When? What? Why? Tears.

My heart has been broken. I’ve re-read every one of our daily letters over the last ten years. I’ve looked at every painting and sketch he sent me. I’ve dug through my photo albums for our childhood pictures. I’ve beaten myself up for not having talked to him in the last couple of months because “life was so busy”.

I’ve felt helpless and crushed and the only thing I knew to do was show up for his sister who he loved so deeply. Together we flew to Dallas where he had lived the last twelve years and with empty suitcases in hand we went to his apartment to fill them with his life; paintings, sketches, photographs, paint brushes, skateboards, books, magazines that he was featured in and on and on.

I’ve never been to Dallas. Never been to his apartment. Never done anything like this. But I knew it was where I needed to be, what I needed to do. Let my best friend know he could count on me. Forever.

I’ve felt an emptiness since Justin died. An overwhelming loss. A form of grief I haven’t quite known. It’s childhood, I think. Innocence. Susan from the beginning. When Susan found a friend.

With him gone he takes a piece of me. The part that was about us. A connection to a time and place that no one else knows.

I love you, Justin. I miss you. As I was flying to Dallas I was talking to a stranger on my plane. He asked where I was going. I told him my best friend died. He took my hand and said softly, “I read somewhere we die twice. Once when we leave this world and once when no one speaks your name anymore.”

I will speak your name, Justin. As much and as often as I can. My daughter speaks your name, and she will tell her children about you… and so on, and so on.

You painted my life with color and detail and images that hang on the walls of my heart.  You always loved my columns, sweet man. This one’s for you.