If there was one thing I could bank on when I was a kid, it was that Jason would be on my front porch, waiting for me to finish my supper so we could play basketball.
It was like clockwork.
Every day, Daddy came home from work at the same time — nearly to the second.
Mama would have home-cooked goodness ready 30 minutes later. Then we’d all sit down together and eat.
As long as it wasn’t raining or snowing, my neighbor Jason would be sitting right past the screen door, ready for a game of H-O-R-S-E.
From kindergarten to fifth grade, until I moved to the country, together we practiced our jump shots, hook shots and trick shots while my little sister flipped around on the swing set hollering at us to watch her stick perfect landings on penny drops.
Sometimes other kids in the neighborhood would come over and we’d all play against Daddy. It would be 6-against-1. I’d be Kevin McHale. Jason would be Michael Jordan.
But Larry Bird (aka Daddy) always was the victor.
Sometimes Jason and I would ride our bikes up and down the hilly streets until lightning bugs glowed to signal the night’s end.
Sometimes we’d search for mushrooms in the woods and stomp them so we could watch ’em “smoke” and make up stories as to why they did.
Sometimes we’d sit next to Jason’s mailbox and pitch gravel across the street. If you got it in the other ditch, you lost points. Jason hated to lose. So did I. Most of the time, when my daddy would stand on the porch and yell for me to come home, we’d almost be ready to come to blows over the score. So we’d drop the rocks we had collected in our T-shirts, Jason would walk in one direction, I’d walk in the other, and we’d both be madder than hornets.
But the next day, he’d be back on my porch steps, just beyond the screen door, twirling the basketball on his finger and waiting patiently for his buddy to finish forcing down her goulash.
One time, instead of playing basketball or pitching gravel or riding bikes or hunting for mushrooms, Jason convinced me to go on an adventure.
Let’s climb the ridge, he said.
The rocky ridge up to South Hill was a monster to a fourth grader, especially a scaredy-cat fourth grader. I only got about 6 feet off the ground before I started bawling my eyes out.
Jason laughed at me and told me to quit being a baby. But I was a baby (still am), and I kept crying. He told me to be brave and start moving one foot at a time to come down.
So I did the logical thing. I continued crying.
Jason climbed up to me and climbed down alongside me so I wouldn’t be so scared.
He was a tough kid, so it was a significant moment in our friendship. He knew I was a baby, but he also knew I had some fierceness in me — as long as my two feet were on the ground.
I was the only girl on our third-grade rec basketball team. I was the point guard for the Orange Crush. I fed Jason the ball down low. We worked together like old pros, thanks to those countless nights we spent together tossing the ball up against my shed.
Actually, for a brief moment in time, I was the second-toughest kid in fifth grade. It went down to the wire, but Jason outlasted me in the pull-up contest for Presidential Fitness in our Westside Elementary P.E. class. I beat all the girls and all the boys — except Jason. Frustrating and fitting all the same. Of course, he never let me forget my ribbon was red and his was bright blue.
But that time, out upon the ridge, he was a sensitive kid helping a friend. He helped me down from being afraid and we sat under the two trees in my yard.
A little shade so we could catch our breath.
Then he leaned in and kissed me.
It was a quick peck on the lips, kinda like the ones you give grandma.
But Jason kissed me, and it was the first kiss I ever had. He was 10; I was 9. We were like deer in the headlights after our 1-second brush with childhood passion. I remember we sat in silence (and most likely drew in the dirt with our fingers).
an eternity a few minutes passed, we played H-O-R-S-E, and everything went back to normal. Sure, he saw me cry. Sure, we shared a little kiss. But there was competition to be had, and there’s no crying (or kissing) in basketball.
Like Bill Laimbeer with a score to settle, Jason wiped the dirt court clean with me. No mercy.
Then he walked home.
It was the most innocent and thrilling day of my short, little life, and it is burned into the back of my mind. It cemented our friendship and proved to me I could depend on him.
It’s a precious memory because, you see, memories are all I have left of Jason.
He is forever 14.
In a strange twist of fate, basketball is how Jason found out he had leukemia. While he was getting his required physical to be able to play seventh-grade ball, the staff told his mom she needed to follow up with their regular doctor.
And in what seemed like the blink of an eye and a grueling, long battle all at the same time, Jason was taking his Make-A-Wish trip to meet his hero — a young Michael Jordan.
The phone rang one night. Mama walked back to my bedroom and held me while I screamed and tried to understand something a little girl shouldn’t have to hear.
On May 18, 1990, Jason David Driskell’s body was overcome by leukemia. Like usual, he didn’t lose. He won another blue ribbon, no doubt pinned to his Bulls jersey by the angels at the gates.
He was one of my first best friends. He was one of my first decisions to trust. He was my first peck on the lips.
He was my first real lesson that life isn’t a guarantee and sometimes the good really do die young.
Jason’s forever 14. But in a way, I’ll always picture him being 10, trying to convince me there’s nothing to be scared of, even if I’m clinging to the side of a cliff and afraid of losing my grip.
Life’s not all bike rides and lightning bugs and hook shots and first kisses.
Some stay forever 14, and the rest of us keep growing.
In his years, Jason taught me that sometimes you just have to do things before you have a chance to think about them. Thanks to him and some hard-learned childhood lessons, I forever promise to be brave and to keep climbing life’s ridge, no matter how many tries it takes.
You never know what’s waiting afterward under the shade trees unless you go for it.
“Limits, like fear, is often an illusion.” — Michael Jordan