County singer LeAnn Womack has a song lyric that goes, "I'm just tryin' to live so that when I die, the preacher won't have to lie." I won't mind if my friends and family lie a little--they can say I always looked thin and talk about how positively charming and hilarious they always found me to be, for example. (Those are words sure to reach me all the way in the hereafter.) I just hope that when the time comes, someone will do it, because it's important. It's important for those left behind, those too heartbroken to speak themselves but desperate for the comfort only memory can bring.
I recently lost a childhood friend who I loved very much. He had closer friends who'd spent more time with him in the years since our high school graduation. They no doubt knew him better than I, but I don't believe they loved him any better. When one of them asked if I would speak at his services, I was touched and honored. My friend had served as a pillar of support for me in our youth, asking virtually nothing in return. Remembering him (and subsequently his identical twin brother who he survived less than two years) for his friends and family at his funeral would be the only way I'd ever have to repay him that debt. I also knew that by speaking for our friend group, I would spare one of the others from feeling they had to. It isn't an easy thing to do by any means.
I didn't plan on publicly sharing the words I spoke that day in this forum, but today, October 30th, is Matthew and Andrew Ballard's birthday, and I wanted to share with our friends who didn't make it to Andy's services my remembrance of him...and his brother Matt.
Happy Birthday, Matt and Andy! It was a joy to know and love you. We miss you dearly!
When Sarah first asked if I’d be willing to speak, while deeply honored, my first thoughts were of how, among all of us that would gather today, surely there would be so many more qualified—so many more that were closer to Andy over the last few years, so many more that knew him even better than I. Looking out at all of you now, I am happy that’s true. What a legacy—to have counted among your closest friends and family so very many.
Today feels especially tough, because while we gather here to say good-bye to Andy, in many ways it feels like a final goodbye to Matt as well. As long as Andy remained here with us, a part of Matt did, too. If we glanced at Andy from afar or as he darted in and out of a room, it was possible to pretend, even if for only a second that he was Matt, and wasn’t that something? That trick we still willed them to play on us?
If loosing Matt was hard on us, it was excruciating for his family…and unimaginable for Andy. We all knew his bereavement would be different, that he would feel the loss of Matt more deeply. How would he go from a lifetime of beginning sentences with “we” when there was only him? He had never known an existence without Matt, and until Matt’s passing, no one except for Mrs. Reatha for 60 seconds in 1977 ever knew Matt without Andy.
On the last night I spent with Andy and Matt together, the night of our 20th high school reunion, I remember getting a kick out of them looking for one another between Sarah and Patrick’s kitchen and back patio. “Twin, twin?” they would call and it was like watching them at nine or ten versus almost 40.
I remember the day—the very moment even—that I met Matt and Andy Ballard. While I had briefly attended Kitty Stone Elementary, I left Jacksonville for a few years but returned in October of our 7th grade year. And there I was, in Texann Dixon’s 7th grade homeroom, delivered at last from the wilderness of Ohatchee, back to civilization within the City of Jacksonville. The tardy bell had rung a good twenty minutes earlier, when Matt and Andy virtually burst through the door. “Sorry we’re late,” Andy said. “Some cows got out and we had to catch them,” Matt added. Mrs. Dixon sighed as she noted her attendance record. They didn’t look like cattle wrustlers, they looked like city boys except for the fact that Matt was slightly muddy. We weren’t driving yet, so I believed their explanation to be true: it was a random Tuesday before 8:30 a.m. and there were cattle to be wrangled in Jacksonville by a couple of identical 13 year-olds. Years later, when we were however old enough to drive, the Ballards would be a factor in almost every single one of my “tardies”, and there wouldn’t be a single cow story to offer up as explanation…or another teacher as forgiving as Mrs. Dixon. The boys entered my life in a mini-explosion of excitement, chaos, and adventure…and that was what it was like to be in their presence forevermore: to never know exactly what might happen because anything seemed entirely possible.
For much of our teenage years, I believe Matt mostly tolerated me. I was Andy’s friend, a tagalong. Matt and I grunted at each other when he’d answer the front door and find me standing there looking for his brother. Sometimes jokes would be exchanged. “Sasquatch,” he would offer. “Bilbo,” I would counter. That changed when we became parents and our boys ended up on the same little league soccer team. Andy was in the Carolinas and Matt and I spent evenings at the practice fields catching up, talking about our sons, and laughing about old times. Those were the days before pervasive social media, when being with Matt was really the only thing that made Andy feel less far away.
I’ve wondered countless times over the past several days if Andy ever truly realized the importance our friendship held for me. Leaving Sarah’s sometime around 3 a.m. after our 20th reunion, another classmate and I had a conversation on the ride home, deep and uninhibited the way only 3 a.m. conversations can be, about the way our high school relationships and friendships had ultimately shaped us, for better or worse, as individuals. I know that I never made the kind of indelible mark on Andy’s life that he made on mine. Andy never NEEDED me. Not like I had needed him, anyway. When thinking about what I would say here today, I revisited my senior memory book, looking for the words I knew Andy would have left among its pages, hoping to find the classic “thanks for being a good friend” inscription or some variation. Not a single word of what he wrote to me back then is appropriate to share here. Not a word. I take some small comfort in knowing that I at least entertained him, but he did so much more for me.
I spent most of my high school years under the guardianship of my depression era grandmother. She was loving, but tough. Her family had survived some of the harshest years in American history and she never got over it. It was completely reasonable in her mind that I should make due with a single pair of “long pants” during cold months and a single pair of “short pants” during the 8 months known as Alabama Summer. This was how Andy came to clothe me for most of our eleventh grade year. It was the 90’s after all—I fit right in wearing his Gap jeans and t-shirts. In one of my favorite pictures of the two of us, I’m even wearing one of his button down shirts. I can’t tell you how many times he called me up before a basketball game or other event to ask, “Where are my jeans? And no, not those, those are Matt’s.” (Maybe that’s why he was grunting at me all the time?)
When I needed a job that same year, Andy helped me get hired at Gregerson’s in Anniston where he’d swooped in as a seventeen-year-old to take over their seafood department. He had middle-aged men and women who’d worked in the grocery industry for years deferring to him, and he carried himself like this was absolutely the norm. He was confident and self-possessed in a way that I’m not even sure I am today. At Gregerson’s Andy taught me that with determination, the right plan, and hard work anything was possible no matter our youth. There was a wider world waiting on us outside of high school, he’d tell me. As long as I was taking steps toward my place in that world, I was going to be okay. He was probably the most reliable and responsible teenager I ever knew.
Andy also shaped me as a thinker and activist. In part, because of him I will always stand up for a person’s equality and their right to protection under the law, no matter who they love—even if who they love is Nick Saban...I know, he was so weird.
I wondered who an old Andy would be without Matt, and the truth is I was never able to wrap my mind around the thought of it. I would have liked to have known them both with white beards and eyes that still twinkled when they smiled and laughed, but there is nothing sadder on this earth, at least not that I’ve encountered, as a twinless twin. There’s no doubt that we will miss them forever, but we can take comfort in the knowledge that Matt and Andy are together again. I hope that we leave here today more committed than ever to our friendships and that we do so in memory of Matt and Andy Ballard, the best friends many of us will have ever had.