Death of a Friend
Perhaps a friend is someone for whom you always have room for one more memory.

Yet even for me, the not so repressed writer ..., the words on paper offer no adequate replacement for even a short time that could have been spent face to face with an old friend.

 

 

 

 


 

Nine hours of travel time with one connection, just to cross the continent, a dead battery in the airport parking lot, then home at last after nine days on the west coast. Knowing that going to sleep is always a challenge the first day back from the west, I choose to face the sixty five new emails which are now in my inbox since I left for the airport early that morning. Not working through them means they will grow to over one hundred by morning.

Logically one of the last to be checked is a “Fwd” with no title. Instant shock, even disbelief hits me. Someone I was close to in college thirty plus years ago has died. Even worse she died a month ago after a battle with cancer that lasted two years.

This was the first news of her sickness, much less death that had reached me, but why should I be surprised. Our paths had only crossed in the last thirty years in the class reports. I had wondered why she had no entry in the last report, but some friends that I knew were fine had chosen not to write anythng either so no warning flag was raised.

It finally happened. The tab for immersion in work came due. Actually it has been a long running tab and this was only an event that drove home something that many in my generation know so well. Work takes so much time that there is little left for those beyond your own family. This may be the curse of my generation.

As many have found out, family now includes taking care of an elderly parent and helping young adults make their way in an increasingly complex world. All of which makes it just that much harder to stay in touch with those who seem to be such an essential part of your life during those college years. College years which themselves seem to take an eternity to get through but which in reality last only an instant.

Yet as part of the most connected generation to date, how can friends so dear become so remote.

The excuses are easy to find. After college in Boston, seventeen years in Canada, most of it running a cattle breeding operation with one stretch of eleven years with no vacation. Then there was the small matter of three kids and five moves including two in two years. Of course having a life this complex requires an exceptional partner. Having an exceptional partner takes love, commitment and probably the last little bit of time that can be squeezed out of life which in my case has meant doing things like taking rare weekends to maintain a trail in the woods just so we can go for long walks together with our Lab, Chester.

Time spent apart in order to make for better time when together. The recipe of a generation doomed to be stretched in so many directions that time and energy for friends may be the most precious gift.

Then there were the reunions, all missed, for most of the same seemingly good reasons. Of course there are always holiday cards often thought about but increasingly rarely sent, but in the last few years email has made things easier if you take the time to send that first email. Yet none of this worked. An old friend died, and I did not have that last good-bye. Perhaps it should not make any difference. We knew each other only briefly. I am certain from what I have been able to learn from my other friend Sally, that my friend died among family and friends that loved her. They knew her for far longer and better than I did. There was nothing that I could have done to ease her pain or even to help her family.

So why does this death trouble me. Perhaps it was only because our birthdays were three weeks apart. Maybe it is because we shared a few long spring break drives from Boston or perhaps it was the Thanksgiving she and some other college friends visited the old Nova Scotia farm with its house of hand hewn beams that a couple of college roommates and I were in the process of rebuilding. It could be that the last time we spent any real time together was in Washington and now I spend most of my time there. In those days my working in Washington where there was no wilderness was inconceivable. It could even be the fact that her death reminded me of the wonderful year we all spent in Currier House in one of those daring for the times co-ed living experiences where we all learned to linger around the table after dinner and drink coffee. Could it be that our wedding present from her is still my wife, Glenda’s, favorite paring knife or they both had the same favorite ice cream, Jamoca Almond Fudge.

The human mind and memories are so complex that figuring this out is more than I can resolve.

Perhaps my feelings were triggered by another meeting,. A couple of months ago, after two years of trying to make it happen, a friend, Charlie, whom I had not seen since we were in military school joined me for lunch in McLean. We spent nearly three hours educating each other on the last thirty plus years. It was a wonderful experience learning how we both, through the twists of fate, ended up working and in his case living in the DC area. I was amazed that I recognized him immediately when I walked into the restaurant.

When I look back, it occurs to me that I am looking for that same feeling that I got from visiting neighbors from my childhood whose son and my childhood friend had died suddenly. I had not seen them since my wedding, yet somehow I found the time to stop by and spend a few minutes. Not long after the mother also died. In talking by phone with her husband, Tom, he told me how much it meant to his wife that I had stopped by and spent some time with them before her death.

His response which gave me a feeling that I had closed one of those circles of life was far different than the powerlessness that engulfs your spirit in the world of email where so often thoughts and emotions never have a response and certainly not a tangible one.

In a world where we are connected almost twenty four hours a day, I cannot remember an email that has created a memory that I choose to hold dear. My boss, John, whose Boston accent often reminds of those college days, knows me well enough to understand that writing is the way I solve things that challenge me. The more complex the problem, the more freely the digital ink will flow. Yet even for me, the not so repressed writer as he often says, the words on paper offer no adequate replacement for even a short time that could have been spent face to face with an old friend.

Two days after I learned of her death, my wife and I went to see "Death of a Salesman." It happens to be my favorite play which I also saw for the first time in my student days in Boston. Seeing Willy Loman crash and burn as his philosophy of being "well-liked" failed him in the end is a sobering experience. Willy never even learned to recognize his real friends much less value them. Perhaps seeing Willy's predicament was the final straw that started the keys clicking on the keyboard.

In our family, oral tradition has it that “home is where you are always welcome.” If we live in world where you can sit for days in an airport without seeing one single person that you know, how dare we let our friends die unmourned. Even if our lives only intersect for brief moments, our friends, even those long lost should not pass into the shadows without their deaths touching our current lives.

When they die a little part of what has made us who we are has disappeared from the world of reality and passed into the virtual world of memories. The fact that we hurt and those around our friends suffer even more means only that this was a good person, the friendship was a valued one even in abeyance, and that the friend will be missed.

If we can be thought of as the sum of all the events in our lives, then it also has to be true that we ourselves move through life with a personality shaped by those who have intersected that amazing journey which we make across this planet. Anyone who has had a teenager will agree that friends influence your life as much or even more than your parents.

With that thought in mind, I look forward to more shared memories and fewer emails.

Perhaps a friend is someone for whom you always have room for one more memory.

Good-bye Susan.

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