My father taught me the Spanish word tocayo. It refers to someone who has the same name as another person. A kind of name twin. One theory states that it comes from Náhuatl, from the word tocayotl, which means, “name”. This information always felt sacred to me because like my father, my first name is Chance. Word play surrounding that name was significant to me early and often in life. I imagined myself an extension of my dad. I imagined us the same. When he had a hard day at work, I was also angry. When he washed his mustang in the driveway, I eagerly stooped in the soap bucket and scrubbed the tires. My father has always been a story teller, and I too grew to love stories. I was the “second chance” at something greater than I knew how to express. We were not a wealthy family, but in namesake, I was rich.
To simplify things in our household though, my family called me by my middle name, Derek. As fate would have it, my best friend was also called Derek. I met him on my first day in a new house at age five, after I repeatedly used his family’s driveway, two houses away from mine, to slow my bicycle. I was afraid to pedal backwards—afraid to lose balance or somehow fall over on the asphalt. As I rode up his driveway, I heard his voice calling down to me from his bedroom window. Mine was the same room in my family’s matching floor plan. When he told me his name, I didn’t believe him. As a boy, I was so afraid of other people that I didn’t want to trust this simple offering of a name.
We grew to be best friends, exploring every day. We would race from the far end of the street back toward our houses on foot or pedal to the nearby construction site to jump our bicycles from the reshaped earth. Derek would pick me first in a game of basketball or street hockey. When I had a loose fingernail, he ripped what was still clinging from my thumb for me. When Derek got a Super Soaker for his birthday, I was so jealous I planned to steal it, but sick with guilt, I couldn’t follow through. Once I convinced Derek to ding dong ditch an old house that was rumored to be haunted at the end of our street. He was caught and never told anyone it was my idea.
A few years into our friendship my mother suggested to Derek’s that he could stay the night at my house. I had a history of bed-wetting, and I begged my mom to change her mind, so afraid that I would wet my bed and Derek would hate me or tell everyone at our school. My mom insisted I simply go pee before bed and I would be fine. That night, Derek and I lay together in my twin sized bed, and he woke me up in a sweat to explain that he was terribly sorry, but he had peed in my sheets.
Our friendship was often a lesson in that way. A mirror.
One day in the fifth grade it was found that Derek had a brain tumor the doctors said was the size of a golf ball. It was unlikely he would live through the necessary surgery to remove it. Derek missed the second semester of school that year, and in the fifth grade I had to prepare to say goodbye to the only person I’d ever felt so close to.
I collected the signatures of our entire fifth grade class for Derek on a basketball (paid for, I imagine, by his teacher). I was expected to deliver this ball to him in that final visit. As I went from classroom to classroom, I became angry at the size of the notes people were writing. Didn’t these people understand how precious Derek’s time was? I also didn’t believe that there was enough room on a basketball for everyone’s name let alone words of encouragement or memories. It’s a wonder how I could be angry at something so small while missing the bigger picture. But the really strange thing was that they all did fit. Every last name and letter from the entire fifth grader nation signed its way onto that little globe. Every name except for mine. My name was elsewhere.
I felt an immense responsibility in delivering that basketball to my friend as he lied in his bed with his eyes shut, listening as I spoke, an oxygen mask muffling his soft responses. It’s necessary to note that the inner ear on my left side was ‘underdeveloped’ during pregnancy and while it felt so crucial to listen, I could not hear his labored last words. I knew that he was in pain and ought to rest so I told him the basketball would be with his mom, that I loved him, that I always would, and I left his house for the last time, alone and in tears.
Walking the short distance home from Derek’s house, I stopped outside and sat on the curb facing the street. I didn’t want to walk into my home crying. I didn’t know that it was okay to cry. In the gutter there, sat a crushed soda can. Though this is unlikely, I was certain we had used it to play hockey in the past. I was certain that Derek had stomped on that can to form a hockey puck. I grabbed the can and turned it over in my small hands. It was a Dr. Pepper. I dragged it across the road’s surface to hear the sound one last time, and I wondered about sound. I wondered if through my shared name, I could wish for Derek’s survival aloud and that somehow the universe could hear me—that all we shared could matter more. I listened to the sounds of my neighborhood. An argument in a nearby garage. An engine starting up the road. The bug zapper on a neighbor’s porch taking a life from this earth. I stood, walked into the house, and went straight to bed.
Derek survived his surgery. Half of his face was paralyzed and like me, he can no longer hear on that left side. To this day he is still my friend and when I talk to him I remember how sacred it felt to be in his room for what I thought was the last time. To speak and wonder what value it had. To comprehend naming as simultaneously trivial and ultimate.
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