"It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives." -- Samuel Johnson
The last text that I would ever receive from my friend was painfully honest. "They're worried about my heart and lungs. Lots of scans and X-rays. ... Not looking good." I put my phone down and pondered how to reply to him. I knew he was alone in the hospital thanks to the tyranny of covid. I knew he had an extremely rare form of cancer that was rampaging through his torn body. I knew he was dying.
His name was David. We met quite by accident three years ago walking out of a class my wife and I had signed up for. After working many years as an English teacher in Long Island and Maine, he and his wife Susan decided to come south. He was lean, quite fit, with a small grey stubble beard and lively eyes. I went over to introduce myself, and our friendship developed immediately. He had a love of reading, used to write a newspaper column up north, and had even been published once in The New York Times. (I remember him ruefully laughing about that, saying they had so edited his piece that it was hard to claim any credit.)
Soon the four of us settled into a close relationship. We would get together every other weekend, trying out different restaurants, or sometimes enjoying the wonderful Italian dishes that Susan had mastered. He wanted to publish the novel he had been working on for years. We would talk regularly about books we were reading and had many lively talks about politics, which was also a passion for him. He was extremely supportive of my writing and would regularly ask for me to send him my column. Afterwards, he would put on his teacher hat and critique my latest opus. He would be direct, gently accurate, and always supportive. In return he would send me his latest chapters where I would attempt the same.
With the pandemic, our visits ceased, we switched to phone and emails, always exchanging our latest scribblings. Then, on a visit to New York City this past October to see his daughter, adversity struck. After he became unusually fatigued, the diagnosis revealed he had a rare form of cancer. Fortunately, there was a chance of recovery that involved medication, radiation and surgery. With his customary focus, he went all-in. "I don't want to die," he told me in one call. "I've got five wonderful kids, grandchildren and my wife. I'm going to fight like hell." But, he added with his customary humor, "if I can't make it, I will go home and sip on a fine bourbon and wait for the end that way."
It is said of friendship that the measure of closeness is not the magnitude of intensity and the heaviness two people entrust in one another but the ability to dance across the entire spectrum of being with equal ease. He was a beautiful partner. Our friendship was one that defies the idea that we cannot make close friends later in life.
My last phone call with David came a week before he died. With a weak voice he said, "I'm still fighting." I told him I loved him. The end came last Friday. "We can count on so few people to go that hard way with us," the poet Adrienne Rich observed. Indeed. There is a song that says to live is to fly. So my friend, while you shake the dust off your wings, here is one last column just for you. And I'll pour the bourbon.