Taking the toll of the funerals in our lives
I’m going to a friend’s funeral today; it’s a thing I’ve done many times. When I was 14, Frankie died of cancer. She was an adult whom young people like me adored. Then when I was 18, my boyfriend Greg died after exhausting his self-proclaimed nine lives. During my 20s and 30s and now into my 40s, I have said goodbye to an inordinate number of friends, most of them around my own age. I have lost so many dear people that my circle of friends is now drawn with a dotted line. Many died of cancer: Jeffrey, Maggie, Chris, Frisby, Scott, Ellen, Joe, Sam, Rick, Jo. Name a crucial body part and it has been invaded and destroyed by this damned menace, bringing about the deaths of these fine people. Jeffrey was funny, bright, urbane and fascinated by the world. Maggie was born in Holland and had lived in New Zealand. She was a nurse who often sat with people who were dying. Knowing cancer too well and then facing it herself, she once told me, “I’ve put away some pills, enough to end it. I’ll take them when it becomes hopeless.” She never took them. Chris was the funniest man I’ve ever known; a former car salesman, ceramicist, and for many years a very close friend. We had some sort of difficulty that I can’t specifically recall but that was surely my fault. I wanted desperately to fix things with him, but I never quite could. For some time, I knew he was dying and I wished more than anything to make amends, but I feared he might see an overture as something I wanted to do for me, so that I wouldn’t have to feel guilty after he was gone. I convinced myself that staying away was the most purely loving thing I could do, so he wouldn’t have to go through the pain of questioning my motives. These decisions that you make as friends are dying can be hard to bear. Frisby was a peace nerd and box-top minister, just like in the back pages of Rolling Stone. He married my husband and me, discreetly suggesting a bottle of single-malt scotch as his fee. He and Chris died the same day. Scott was a musician and an artist, even younger than I. He was a sweetheart. Ellen was working on a doctorate in child psychology when breast cancer came out of the clear blue and took her life. Joe, father of three of our favorite kids and husband to our friend Lisa, had to be the best-read railroad man ever, a formidable opponent in board games, and a music aficionado. Sam, father of two of our favorite kids and husband to our friend Deborah, lived to see the year 2000. He was a shy truck repairer, always at our home for parties, but frequently off by himself. He was a kindly river rat, more comfortable on a raft than in anyone’s living room. Rick was a hydrologist, naturalist, and a poet. Near the end of his life, he chose to be sealed to his wife and children in the LDS Temple. We, his former beer-drinking buddies, were shocked, but we supported his decision. Jo, a devoted mom who founded her own medical courier business, had actually looked like she was going to beat cancer, but it came back. We’ve also lost some friends to AIDS: Matt and Oscar. Matt, a dapper young co-worker, came from a religious family that insisted he really died of cancer. Oscar was Latino and very suave, always dancing. Pam was a VA nurse, community activist and single mother. She had a heart attack during childbirth and was in the hospital something like 45 days. She managed to live, though, and when she was released from the hospital, she got a 50-foot cord for her oxygen tank, boldly cut a huge hole in her kitchen wall, went out onto her roof, and built a deck. She enjoyed her son Tim and her deck for nearly six years and then she died, with purse in hand, on the way to catch a plane. Her sister was Ellen, mentioned earlier. An accident claimed Pete, the funny, charming, irreverent politician. Not long before he died we had a long, hilarious chat on the phone. At least Wade was of my parents’ generation rather than my own, but I loved him like a father and his death cut deep. I’m trying to learn some lessons from all this. Here’s what I have so far: Don’t postpone, love the people around you, treat them kindly, and try to leave things well between you each time you part, because you never know. You can leave for work on a beautiful blue morning (in September, say, as so many did in 2001), or the person you love can, and that might just be it. I’ll go today to the funeral of Julie, a sardonic, sweet, funny drummer who died of a stupid blood clot after minor surgery, and for another day, and for another friend, I’m asking the unanswerable why. --- Barb Guy is a frequent contributor to these pages. She lives in Salt Lake City.