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Here's what I'll remember about my good friend Mike
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Michael Avok (left) and Deseret News columnist Greg Kratz show off their best journalist attire during their college years at South Dakota State University circa 1990. I'm remembering Mike today, in the wake of his unexpected death. - photo by Greg Kratz
Do you remember that one friend from middle school? I do.

He was one of my first real friends. Soon he became my best friend. We hung out practically every day, and eventually sooner than either of us realized we could communicate without words. I knew what he was thinking, he knew what I was thinking, and a simple look between us could lead to a half-hour of laughing.

Middle school became high school, and our friendship continued. We spent hours cruising Broadway, talking mostly about girls. It never occurred to us until later that we should spend more time getting to know girls and asking them out and less time wasting gas while talking about them.

Our friendship grew more mature as we approached senior year. Conversations that in the past had always been frivolous occasionally became serious. We talked about the future, college, careers, family. But we were still kids, too, so we hauled out the plastic army men, played basketball for hours in the summer heat or showed old family slides on the screen of an abandoned drive-in theater.

By this time, years of shared history had allowed us to create a new language, a kind of verbal shorthand that only we could understand. I didn't think about it then, but this communication style would become so imprinted upon us that we would slip into it without hesitation decades later.

We decided to take a "senior trip," hitting the road and traveling to an amusement park in a big city hours from home. When my car broke down on the way there and on the way back, he was the one who kept us laughing and feeling positive. I had a great time, thanks to him.

We went to the same college, and we both chose to pursue the same degree, so we had many classes together.

College years are complicated, though, and that was the case for us. While we were still close, we also grew apart in some ways. We found new friends and interests. At times, we disappointed each other. Hurt each other, even, though not intentionally. The friendship, however, remained.

After graduation, we went our separate ways, pursuing careers and other dreams. We were sure we'd always stay in touch, and we did a pretty good job of that at first. But as time and life rolled on, we lost contact with each other. I sometimes mentioned my friend to my wife or other common acquaintances, wondering how he was doing. I Googled him now and then, looking for clues to his whereabouts. Of course I thought about him. But I didn't make the extra effort to find him.

And then, after years of no communication, he contacted me out of the blue. He had tracked me down, and he wanted to catch up.

What followed were phone conversations, emails and text messages, often at random times. It didn't matter how many weeks passed between moments of communication. That private language still allowed us to connect in ways that few others would understand.

Finally, last summer, we were going to be in roughly the same place at the same time, and our schedules allowed for a face-to-face meeting. It was great to see each other again and to introduce my children to the person about whom they had heard so many stories.

During a quiet conversation that followed, he told me he was suffering from some health problems, but he was confident that he'd get them under control. I was confident, too. He was always so fun, so hilarious, so full of life and positive energy. I knew this was just one more bump in what had been, for him, a sometimes rocky road. But he never stopped moving forward, and that would surely be the case again.

So, as I headed back a couple of weeks ago for another hometown visit, I planned to call him to set up another meeting. It would be tough to fit it into my schedule and his, but I was sure we could work something out.

And then, sitting in the same basement where he and I held many epic ping-pong battles, I got the call.

Those health problems were worse than I thought. And due to some complications following a surgery, the best friend of my youth had died at the age of 45.

Before going into surgery, he told his sister that he wanted me to write his obituary if the worst happened. And so I did. Because I happened to be in the area, I was also able to attend his memorial service. It was casual, and he would have liked it, but I couldn't help thinking it would have included a lot more laughter if he had been there.

Now he's gone, and I'm left with questions. Why didn't I make more of an effort to reach out to him during all of those years after college? Why didn't I take more time, even in the last few weeks, to thank him for decades of friendship? Why did he have to go now?

But I'm also left with what people said at his memorial service. His work ethic was legendary, whether the job was managing a shift at our college-town McDonald's or crawling out of bed to cover a car accident for any of the many newspapers privileged to have him as a reporter and editor. But he had told his wife recently that what he wanted to do with the rest of his life was spend more time with his family, do a little more fishing, play a bit more golf.

So maybe that's the answer to all of those questions. A person can be known for even defined by his occupation and his excellence at work. But what he'll really be remembered for is his interest in other people, his love of family, his smile and laughter, his friendship.

That's what I'll remember most about my friend Mike Avok.

And until we meet again, I'll try to be to others the kind of friend he was to me.
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