My birthday gift was not intentional; it was not given to me, nor was it completely tangible. My gift was an old acquaintance turned new friend. My gift was a cathartic coming-of-age moment.
I knew a guy in high school who joined the marines right after graduation. I hadn’t thought about him very much since, until I saw him walking on campus Wednesday night. He had a reason for being at Tech, but everything was so perfectly timed that I like to think that it all just fell in place.
Flash forward four hours, and we’re sitting in my room. He tells me everything he feels about being in the marines, everything he’s felt since he was little, and everything he feels looking forward. I’m looking right at him, right at this person I had class with every day, but he’s not a kid anymore. He’s going to war in a few months. He’s disabling bombs on the front lines. He’s telling me about the sense of brotherhood he feels, the inescapable loneliness he felt before the marines, about his sister keeping the baby, about his nephew. And this is how I feel:
There is a great chasm between us. He is living in a world that is unsheltered and uncensored. I have been told over and over that nothing is given to you in college, and that you will get out of it what you put in. Next to him, I’ve been spoon fed. I don’t know if he will be the same person in a few months, or even a few days. I’ve never been exposed to that amount of unpredictability, but unpredictability is the only constant in my friend’s life. I can see him maturing. The chasm expands, its cracks spread. It grows larger as we grow closer. Soon, it will be about 8,000 miles wide, a distance that spans from Blacksburg to Afghanistan, and I can’t help but think of how many letters I’ll have written him by then. Every inch apart will bring us closer. This is my solace.
I will see him one last time tonight before he and I split paths again. It just took a few hours for him to change me. Four hours, that’s all it took. This is what he said to me:
“My sister is raising a baby and still in college. I figure if she can do that, I can do this.”
“Well, if you can do that, I can do this, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you can serve, I can be the best I can be.”
“That makes sense.”
I got cupcakes and candy and cards. Jacob was the best of the bunch.