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True friends are there through thick and thin

Friendship is a funny thing. We've all had friends come in and out of our lives — childhood pals, schoolmates, work friends and neighbors. Sometimes friendships develop with people you would not expect, and sometimes we lose touch with those we thought would be in our lives forever. And sometimes great friendships grow even stronger because of life's unexpected twists and turns.

Jay, John, Mike and I met as college freshmen at St. Bonaventure University. We packed a lifetime of memories and stories into those four years. In the 16 years since we left Olean, we have remained close, despite not living in the same place. There have been weddings, children, job changes, moves and, through it all, the four of us have largely remained the knuckleheads that met as 18-year-olds, just with wives, children, more weight and less hair.

For the past 10 years or so, we have made a point to take a trip together each year. We have laughed our way through New York, Buffalo, Rochester, Chicago, Boston, Vermont, Baltimore and Toronto, among other places.

Some of the best things about our trips are the stories. Each trip seems to bring about a new set of them. The golf cart accident of 2002 (John's fault), the cab driver in New York City (my fault), the breakfast in Chicago, the panhandler in Boston and the Irish Embassy are just a few of the memories we've created by hanging out together. No matter what each year held in store, we knew there would be at least one weekend when the four of us would get together. It's something we all look forward to.

Unfortunately, we've seen each other quite a bit this past year.

It started last January, when doctors told me that my mother's cancer had progressed to the point that chemotherapy would no longer be effective. "Keep her comfortable" was the directive. A few months later came the news that John's dad had been diagnosed with lung cancer. By summer, Mike's mother, who had long struggled with some health issues, was declining. Our conversations were now filled with medical updates and prognoses.

Those circumstances cast a pall over our trip to Toronto last summer. We still had fun, but with Mike unable to join us, our thoughts were understandably elsewhere.

The day after we got home, we got the call that Mike's mom had passed away. Two months later, I sat alone with my mother as she drew her last breath. Just before Thanksgiving, bad news struck again. Jay's father was diagnosed with cancer. By the end of 2011, the updates from John and Jay were growing dim. When John's father passed away in January, I picked Jay up in Rochester and we made the drive to Long Island for the funeral, talking about what his father was facing. A month later, he was gone, too.

Four parents gone in seven months. The loss of our parents is one of the difficult experiences that life throws at us. I miss my mother every day and I know that Jay, John and Mike are going through the same thing. We've taken turns lifting each other up — as only true friends can.

The four of us will be getting together this summer, under far better circumstances than the last few times we've seen each other. We'll be bringing along a few others as well. Nancy Kenny, Mary Ann Pantano, John McCulloch and Wayne Laird will all surely be with us. They are an unmistakable part of our story.

Phil Pantano, of South Buffalo, is thankful for the time he had with his parents and the time he spends with his friends.