On the Loss of Old Friends

12 Jul



Throughout my recent cancer scare, I have, quite naturally, been confronted by the idea of my untimely death.  Let’s face it, when you’re talking about cancer, people speak to you about survival averages, and those averages account for those who live through and those who die from the disease.  To be clear, though, pondering my premature passing was not some newly discovered habit of mine.  Indeed, it is a deeply entrenched, longstanding practice (some may call it a personality flaw).  Worrying is one of my most notable habits of mind, and to a professional worrier like me, premature death has always been a major cause for concern.  I wouldn’t say the thought of dying keeps me up at night, but it certainly finds ways to seep into my thinking throughout the day.  Recently, even before the current war with Gaza, I was confronted with news that would, to some extent, shake me out of my foolishness and remind me that while I navel gaze and contemplate my imaginary death, real people are dying every day.  And what is worse, some of those real people are friends and colleagues.  Worse still, some are the very same age as me, making their passing extraordinarily untimely, unexpected, and unfair.  Don’t get me wrong, I knew that the folks I went to high school with, those who graduated from, say, 1980-1985 would begin to die, but I assumed that process would begin later, as we entered our 70s or 80s.  Sadly, though, the process began just a few years after our graduation, and has continued sporadically over the past thirty-plus years.

Quite recently this cruel eventuality —the premature deaths of my schoolmates—once more became a painful reality when I learned of the sudden death of a onetime friend.  He was a nice guy.  He was one of a few neighborhood kids I hung out with in the 7th and 8th grades.  In high school we kind of went our separate ways, but he was always around and was always a nice person.  About two months ago he reached out to me on Facebook and I was delighted to see that he had a rich fulfilling life and a wonderful family.  All of that came to a screeching halt when he and his wife were involved in a terrible car accident, a crash that took his young life (he had just turned fifty a week or so before) and left his widow in ICU.  Although I had not spoken to him in years, and had not been close with him since our brief stint in a youth soccer league back in the late 1970s, I have found that his death has had an unexpected emotional impact on me.  I mean, sure, one can feel bad about this sudden and cruel loss of life, but for some reason I spent the weekend after his passing utterly devastated by the news.  My heart breaks over his death and for the loss and pain his family will have to endure.

Sadly, this old friend was not the first of my former classmates to die.  Nor is the loss of Harrison Huskies from the 1980s a recent phenomenon.  Their passing began within just a few years of our graduation.  The recent loss of my old friend, and my upcoming birthday, I will turn 50 very soon (God willing), have got me thinking about those who have passed over the decades, and I feel compelled to write about them here in this public forum as some kind of memorial to them.  I realize that any words I can offer are insignificant, and that even my interest in sharing their stories is evidence of my colossal hubris, as if somehow my little blog is capable of providing a worthy memorial for the passing of these young men and women.  It can’t.  Still, they were good kids, good people who, to my knowledge, went on to be good (and possibly great) human beings.  The world is diminished for their passing, and we are all likely better for being reminded of them and their lives.  I suspect that others from my class have passed of whom I am not aware, and I may have even forgot some names (my memory is not what it used to be), but to my knowledge, below is a list of my former classmates (or the spouses of classmates) who have passed away over the past 30 some odd years.

The first classmates’ deaths I can recall came just a few years after graduation. One night two friends were driving home from a bar and were in a terrible car accident.  He was an eccentric, former military school student with a charismatic personality and a shock of dark hair. He smoked Phillip Morris unfiltered cigarettes and spoke like George C. Scott in his role as General Patton.  He was a hoot, and I liked him very much.  She was a lovely and talented young woman who sang in the chorus (we were good friends in 9th grade).  She married young and was taken from us young.  The other driver was apparently under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and as is so often the case, he lived while my classmates died.  I wish I could say that I still think about them all the time, but I don’t.  My brain is too filled with other memories (happy and sad) to recall too much from my childhood.  Still, I do think about them from time to time, and it breaks my heart to know that their lives and potential were cut so short.

I think the next person we lost too soon was the wife of a close friend.  Forced to deal with incredible physical pain, she took her own life.  My friend, her husband, has somehow carried on and has become a regional leader in the fight against suicide.  I cannot even imagine the magnitude of his loss, and I continue to marvel at his strength and conviction.  But, then, I always thought he was the bravest of all of my close friends.  He proved it too!  He served on numerous police forces across the country (as did his wife) before switching careers (another incredibly brave act). As for his wife, she was beautiful, loving, a wonderful mother, and from what I understand a damn fine cop.  Her family and the rest of the world are diminished by her passing.

Then there was the little red-haired girl who I sometimes sat next to in ninth grade humanities class.  Apparently she grew into a beautiful and brave red-haired woman who gracefully fought and with equal grace succumbed to lymphoma—the same disease doctors originally believed that I had.  Her passing gives the lie to so many physicians who told me that, “If you must have cancer, this is the cancer to have.  The tumors just melt away in chemotherapy.”  Apparently not.  Her friends and family have created a charitable foundation in her honor.

Then there was my close friend who died of AIDS. His is an unimaginably sad story.  Orphaned by the age of 15, he was raised by relatives (including his barely legal brothers) until he reached his majority.  Fortunately he was also cared for by a number of very fine and decent parents in town, including my own.  Indeed, my dad helped him with his college applications.  He was accepted to school out here in LA, and pretty much left without much of a trace.  In LA he came out of the closet and, regrettably, found himself part of the generation of gay men who became ill with AIDS long before people knew much about the disease or how to treat it.  And yet, he somehow survived for a decade with the disease.  About a year after I moved to LA, we got back in touch and became very close. My wife and I, and he and his partner (a wonderful, caring, older man who deserves a great deal of credit for his care and support) became good friends—spending time in each other’s homes, enjoying the holidays together, etc. Eventually, though, the good times came to an end, as my friend began to be squeezed between the symptoms of his disease and the side effects of the drugs used to treat him—this was just before the widespread use of anti-retroviral drugs.  The night before he died we said goodbye and promised to come back in the morning, but before we could make it there, he was already gone.  Dead at 31.  I still miss him very much.

I know that these are not the only people in the world to have died these past thirty-plus years.  I know that others have suffered greatly.  I know that there is a war in Gaza right now that has and will claim hundreds of people’s lives, many of them very young.  I know that my sense of loss may seem selfish.  But the loss of average, everyday people, people not caught up in war or some other kind of violence…their deaths matter, too.  And whether the sentiment is selfish or not, I miss these people, and am both saddened and angered by their premature departure from this world.  And above all, I hope that those of you who read this (including me, I guess) will stick around for a long time.


As always, stay tuned.


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