In the years before I released my first novel, I began reviewing books for Baseball America with an eye toward expanding my contact network. I interviewed a number of authors and stayed in touch with some of them afterward. Several were kind enough to provide back-cover quotes for The Greatest Show on Dirt when it was released in 2012.
Jeff Gillenkirk, who turned out to be a Rochester, NY, native who had relocated to California, became something of a regular correspondent over the years. Every so often we would exchange a flurry of emails discussing our latest projects, writing in general, baseball, politics, or family life. He had twenty years on me and enough wisdom to share that there were mentor-mentee aspects to our friendship. He provided feedback on Sorry I Wasn't What You Needed, and wasn't shy about telling me he didn't care much for my protagonist, C.J. Neubauer. Jeff called him a sociopath. I softened C.J. up a bit after that. He wasn't meant to be especially likeable, but he wasn't meant to be a sociopath, either.
We met up a couple of times for dinner when he returned to Rochester to visit family, hitting Hose 22 in Charlotte twice, once successfully, once less so. On his last visit we found out the hard way that Hose 22 doesn't serve dinner on Monday evenings. Or at least didn't back then. Which turns out to have been 2016. We went instead to a somewhat louder restaurant nearby, but still had a nice meal and even better conversation.
It doesn't seem possible it was five years ago. If you had asked me before last night I would have sworn it was three, maybe two. In my mind we would have done it again last summer if not for Covid-related travel restrictions. In my faulty memory we exchanged email only last year.
Now that I've finally hit the stage on the new book where I am about to reach out to my feedback crew, Jeff was solidly atop the list. In fact, I was considering asking if he'd be willing to tackle the job of editing it. Has he edited a novel before, I wondered. So I looked him up on LinkedIn. Nothing. And then I Googled him.
And the second hit was an obituary. A lovely story of a passionate and caring man who was involved in so many interesting projects, who passed away of a heart attack.
In November 2016.
We didn't exchange emails last year, or the year before. The last string I came across was from the month before he died. We talked about the baseball playoffs and the state of publishing. He attached two articles about publishing trends that he thought I would enjoy. And in my mind we've had other exchanges just like that over the past few years.
I've moved so many times over the years that I have friends in far-flung locations, clustered around the places I once called home. Friends who are there when I reach out, via email, text, or Twitter--or on the rarest occasions by phone. There have been catch-up visits here and there, where the friendship picks right back up where it last left off, as if it had only been months since we last saw each other instead of years. Distance and time doesn't impact these relationships.
Until they do. Until so much time has gone by that it's almost more of shock to learn that a friend has been gone for four and a half years than it is to find out that he's gone. I had no idea I should miss Jeff until I came across that obituary last night. He's been gone all this time, but he was never gone to me until now.