When a Friend Sails Into the West

In a hole in the Internet, there lived a group of people who loved hobbits.

These are indeed strange times as we all struggle to come to grips with what it means to social distance. Those of us who are routinely chained to our work desks are now chained to the kitchen table or some other makeshift work-at-home space.

We are grateful for those deemed essential and wonder why, if we are not essential, we do the same thing day after day.

But, that’s not the point of today’s post. To get to that I have to tell you a story.

In the days when the Internet and distance relationships were still young I met a group of friends on a political discussion board. We were drawn there by politics, and to each other by the love of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

In the days following the events of 9/11 we were, like everyone, seeking avenues of escape, and we found ourselves each commenting on an article titled “New Zealander Builds Hobbit Hole.”

What grew out of that were conversations about Hobbits, and The Shire, and a strong anticipation of the upcoming release of The Fellowship of the Ring.

More importantly, what grew out of that was a group of friends who have now been invested in each other’s lives for nearly two decades. We were social distancing pioneers.

Had we met in real life, I’m not sure that we would have been friends. We were, to paraphrase the Professor, the most unlikely creatures to get together.

In the years to come we would discuss THE MOVIES, and life, and our animals. When THE MOVIES became available for home viewing, we would pop them into our DVD players at the same time and head over to a Yahoo chat room to “watch” them together.

Our conversations went on for, literally, years. The owner of the forum where we met had to give us special dispensation because our threads would reach capacity.

Gradually about ten years ago, most of us migrated to Facebook.

Occasionally, we were bold enough to meet in person. We soon found out that, on a game site, romance was blossoming and one of our members was flying west for a James Taylor concert. At least that’s what we were told. Not long after, he was moving west permanently. We watched the wedding on one of the earliest versions of a webcam. This was not the only wedding we experienced together, nor the only romance that came from within our group.

With the anticipation of the release of The Return of the King we hatched an idea. I no longer remember who first suggested it, but there were several days, if not weeks of “are you serious?”

We determined that, together, we would rent a house off the coast of Florida and spend a week watching the first two movies and going to the theater to see the third. Some twenty of us gathered there. I left too soon, but that’s another post.

Before we went to Florida, I had an invitation of my own. Matt, a Marine, was stationed with his family at Quantico. They invited me up to spend the night. I admit, I was hesitant. My family was hesitant. After all, what if he turned out to be an axe murderer?

NARRATOR: He was not an axe murderer.

What I found instead was a gracious host who, along with his very pregnant wife and two beautiful children, welcomed me into their home. Our bonds of friendship grew deep and we were buddies on the Internet threads we returned to, able to hurl insults that sometimes baffled the others, but that we wore as badges of honor.

I only saw Matt in person one more time, when we gathered in Florida. Some time later he and his family hosted another gathering at their home in Missouri. I will always regret not making that trip.

I regret that a little more as I write this because we lost Matt this week. After fighting bravely in the first Iraq war, Matt came home and his body was attacked by a vicious, and aggressive tumor. The first round did enough damage that he never had full use of one of his arms again. And yet he fought on.

When he retired from the military and settled on the farm, he continued to work, and to teach, and to raise his family. We would all rejoice together when he would report back to us after another brain scan that “they looked in my head and found nothing there.”

Beers all around.

Some months back, the tumor returned with a vengeance. It was inoperable. While the doctors prescribed an aggressive form of treatment, the news was grim.

Matt never lost his faith, or his sense of humor. But in the last few weeks, we heard less from Matt and instead got updates from the love of his life. Lisa told us that her man was brave, and that his faith was strong. One of the last things she told us was that Matt said we’re all dying, just some faster than others.

Matt sailed from the Grey Havens on Monday. As one of our friends wrote, “the world is diminished.”

Matt was strong and brave, and yet loving and kind. In all of the gruffness, and toughness, he was truly one of the most Christlike men I have ever known.

In this weird time when it seems that we’ve lost so much, losing Matt reminds me of those things that are really important.

I am richer for having known Matt.

“Where are you going, Master?” cried Sam, though at last he understood what was happening.

“To the Havens, Sam,” said Frodo.

“And I can’t come.”

“No, Sam. Not yet anyway, not further than the Havens. Though you too were a Ring-bearer, if only for a little while. Your time may come. Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot always be torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have so much to enjoy, and to be, and to do…And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as long as your part in the story goes on.”

As spoken by Frodo Baggins in The Return of the King, by J.R.R. Tolkien

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