My poor sister must be so sick of giving me news she knows is going to ruin my day, week, month, but God knows it’s better than finding out from someone else. Milton had a heart attack on Friday. He collapsed at home and his wife Nic revived him, but he died before the ambulance got to the hospital.
I don’t remember meeting him; our friendship was of such long standing that the bulk of it pre-dates this blog. He was in kindergarten with my older brother, and I was in kindergarten with his younger brother and the kid who would become his stepbrother. In our teens his family washed up at the same church as mine for whatever reason. He was a youth leader there, although in retrospect it’s obvious he already had one foot out the door. He and his brother were blond, blue-eyed, square-jawed Australians who would have been almost boringly conventionally attractive if not for their obvious intelligence and the anarchic gleam of mischief in their eyes. (Also they were both short-arses, barely taller than me.)
He was the first of our little cohort to travel, and he did it properly: to Europe and Asia for more than a year, so that his name had become something of a legend by the time he showed up at church again, brown and glowing with a huge grin on his face. Other people glazed over at his stories (memorable quote from someone else at the time: “Why would anyone want to travel? God’s love is the same everywhere.”) But I wanted to see every photo, hear every anecdote. In retrospect it’s obvious I already had one foot out the door. It must have been around then that he started treating me as a pesky little sister and I him as another all-knowing big brother. We all had nicknames then: his was Stilt Man, maybe because of his height? (Mine was PL, short for Poor Little Rachel, baby sister to Big Sar, Big Man and Big Al.)
Travel became his focus for a while. He was working at the student travel agency in the Wentworth Building at Sydney Uni when he sold me my flight to Dublin in 1993. He was not long back from LA, where he’d gotten caught up in the riots. It sobered him a little: “I’m falling in love with Sydney all over again,” he said, and for months afterwards I looked at our hometown with new, more respectful eyes. He parlayed his travel agency experience into early Web jobs and we overlapped in San Francisco during the dot com boom. He had an apartment in North Beach and rode his bike over the Golden Gate Bridge to his job in Sausalito. Gotta hand it to him, the man had panache.
After he moved back, we met up at Petit Creme in Sydney a time or two on my visits home. He worked as an information architect at IBM, and he and his girlfriend adopted a Pharaoh Hound. But I didn’t do a good job of staying in touch. I knew vaguely that he’d broken up with that girlfriend and married Nic, another old acquaintance. It turns out that when you leave home you make the unconscious assumption you’ll come back one day to share your war stories with your comrades. It turns out that in fact, they might not always be there.
I didn’t always like him but it turns out that he was family, he was one of mine. And now he’s gone. I think of Nic, a new-made widow. I think of his kids in ten or twenty years, seeking out his friends to try and find out what kind of man he was. Most of all I think of Milton, and in my mind he is about twenty, having a bloody good time at the beach, wearing a green sarong he’d picked up in Bali, of course, with that self-satisfied smirk and his blue eyes dancing with laughter.