It’s not as though no one I’ve ever known has died suddenly. My mother, for instance. One day, she and my niece are going for dinner and a movie, and the next, she’s gone. Just like that. Or Uncle Harry, who lived for the day he could retire, and then dropped dead as soon as that day finally came.
When I spoke the words the other day, “beware the Ides of March,” I had no idea that an old friend would be gone by the end of the day. And though we had been out of touch, the news struck me like a brick to the skull.
I met him at the Landmark Forum 14 years ago, both of us wanting, needing to find our authentic selves; both of us as uncomfortable in our own skins as an apple inside an orange skin. From the very first hour, our Forum leader had impressed upon us the importance of integrity, keeping our word. When you say you will be somewhere at a certain time, be there, or be held accountable. Apparently, I learned that lesson well…. We had just returned from lunch break on our third day, participants all taking care to be on time. Our Forum leader, however, failed to appear as promised. When a few minutes later, he took the stage, and before he could make his excuses, out it popped, right from my own terribly ADHD mouth—”Are you late?”
Ninety-five pairs of eyes turned to see who had enough chutzpah to call him to account for himself. Amidst all those peepers, one of those pairs flashed a smile that lit up the entire room—a thousand watts beaming at me. He called himself the old codger.
When the time came to choose a partner for the next exercise, I felt his piercing blue eyes and magical smile upon me before I actually saw them. We became inseparable, and when the next segment rolled around a month later, we partnered again. A 12-week seminar followed, during which we became fast friends, spending Thursdays evenings together, first having dinner at a nearby Thai restaurant, and then sharing the progress of our projects during the seminar, with long talks sitting under the stars, often arriving home after an hour drive at 1 or 2 am.
With our friendship came a lesson in unconditional love and acceptance. As friends, we were an odd pair. He was tall and muscular, wore his grizzled hair in a buzz cut, carried his unbridled enthusiasm for everything on his sleeve, and reeked of conservative. I was, on the other hand, a foot shorter than he and shaped like an apple on toothpicks, with short, glossy, dark hair streaked with silver (now waist-length), myriad health issues, and an unrepentant hippie spirit. In spite of our differences, or perhaps because of them, we saw one another through many of life’s ups and downs, sharing our lives as close friends do. When he walked the stage to receive his master’s degree, I was there. He attended my younger son’s wedding, and when he married a charming New Yorker, I attended his wedding as an honored guest. We were the best of friends.
But as sometimes happens after a marriage or other life-changing event, a distance developed between us, and eventually, he chose to be out of touch. I thought of him often and I missed his presence in my life, but accepted his choice and moved on.
When news of his sudden death reached me on Friday, I sat stunned, reading and rereading the too-short message from his grief-stricken wife. She knew that although we had been out of touch for a while, I would still want to know. Tears streaming down my face, I tried to process the news.
How is it even possible that this picture of health, the old codger, this dynamic, goofy, wonderful guy, just a month older than I, who worked out daily and taught karate to kids, ate a healthy diet and took vitamin and mineral supplements up the wazoo, could so suddenly just cease to be? How could someone who took such good care of himself die from a blood clot to his heart less than two weeks after being diagnosed with lymphoma, before he had even discussed treatment options?
Emotionally, I’m still struggling to process his death. Intellectually, I get it, loud and clear, but in my heart, he’s still very much alive and kicking.