About My Friend

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One of my longtime friends died the morning of October 3rd. I guess that’s something I’ll have to get used to in years to come. We met because we both attended a Quaker private high school in southern Ohio, and both loved it there. I may have come by that more naturally, since my parents were Quakers, and my father and his brothers had attended the school, while my friend’s background was entirely different.
He really enjoyed people, and was a lot of fun to be around. He had a lot of friends, who are now mourning him. One thing that showed his love for the school he’d attended, and the people he’d met there was buying a building in the nearby town. Whenever there were gatherings that was one of the main places people would meet outside of the more official meetings on the school campus. He loved to party and socialize with just about anyone. He wasn’t exactly an intellectual, but he wasn’t stupid either. When he worked for a Quaker conference center near Philadelphia a visiting oriental gentleman was interested to discover that a maintenance man was interested in the ideas of George Gurdjieff.
Partying was part of his downfall, though. He always smoked a lot of marijuana and cigarettes, which led to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which eventually killed him. As much fun as he was to be around, his life had a darker side too.
Part of that was bipolar disorder, something he never realized until relatively late in life. It made him restless when he was manic, hitch-hiking all over the country in early adulthood and sometimes running out on relationships that could have been meaningful to him. And people with that disorder frequently self-medicate. It’s not a pleasant thing.
He was an artist, and I think a pretty good one, though he wasn’t extremely prolific. For awhile he made his living at that, though a lot of what he did was painting signs for people, and putting pictures and lettering on T-shirts, but after the bipolar diagnosis the medications he had to take prevented him from working, though he WANTED to work. Once he was describing his symptoms, and I said it seemed almost as if the cure was worse than the disease. He said, “No, it isn’t.”
He told me about how a particularly crippling depression led to his diagnosis: he’d been feeling suicidal, and probably would have ended it all if he’d been able to find his gun. The father of his ex-wife found him, took care of him, and got him into treatment. Part of the treatment was medication, part was psychological therapy. He didn’t go into great detail with me, but it sounded like he came from a very unhappy family. He said his memory didn’t go back much further than age 12, which surprised me, as mine goes back to age 2 or 3. That suggests a lot of repressed memories, which probably didn’t make bipolar disorder any more pleasant to experience.
From the outside he didn’t have a very successful life, but that perspective isn’t the only one. Ask his friends. Ask his first wife, who divorced him, but remained close friends with him. She and his roommate were the two people who provided or arranged for most of his care the last several weeks of his life. I think their post-divorce friendship was admirable on both their parts. And I particularly feel for her right now, since he was such a big part of her life, and she had to expend so much energy and time, out of a busy schedule, caring for him. He was lucky to have her. I think she may feel she was lucky to have him too.
As I said above, he wasn’t particularly prolific as an artist, as far as I know. But he showed me a painting that really struck me, perhaps about 15 years ago. It shows the tearful face of a person behind bars peering out into a mirror. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more succinct or accurate depiction of the loneliness of depression and being trapped in your own small world. I’ve had my own experiences with depression, but never as deep as what he told me about.
Another, which I think was a self-portrait, showed the subject oddly shaped and colored, which may have reflected his feelings about himself. Perhaps he felt like a square (or hexagonal) peg trying to fit into a round hole.
Every time I came to town I would visit the school and anyone I knew there, but then would go to hang out with him. Sometimes I used to stay at his place, other times not. But I last got to visit him two years ago, because other things intervened, so didn’t see his health further deteriorate as it did.
He’d told me about the diagnosis, I’d been shocked and unhappy about it, and expressed that to him. We had never been BEST friends, but I didn’t want to lose him. The last time I saw him he said that he’d made his last arrangements and was okay with everything. I’m sure there were times when he WASN’T so okay, but he also said that he accepted what he’d done, that it had all been part of what had put him where he was, and I don’t think he was agonizing about bad choices or luck anymore.
That year I got the strong feeling that he needed someone to help him prepare to die. I knew I couldn’t do it, having little knowledge to share, but anyone else I’d known who I thought might be able to help was no longer around, so I didn’t do anything about the thought.
He’d told me he might have to go on oxygen, and eventually he did. He’d been spending winters in Florida with his brother, who I think was his only remaining family. When he returned last spring he said on Facebook that it was the last time he’d visit there. Of course I hoped that wasn’t true, but I guess he was beginning to know time was running out.
Not many weeks ago his friends on Facebook got the message that he’d been in the hospital with bronchitis, and wasn’t in good shape, that the end was coming soon.
That’s when I decided to write to him. I wanted to be as positive about it as possible, so I told him that it was good he would soon be rid of the body that was causing him so much misery, and wishing him the best. I didn’t get an answer from him. He probably wasn’t able to use the computer anymore.
I worried that my message had been inappropriate, but felt it was from my heart. I also got concerned when I heard that he was restless and disoriented, and wished I could be there to help. I’ve spent a lot of years working in nursing homes, frequently with dying patients, and could have helped with his physical care, and maybe even have helped him to be more calm. But he lived in another state, and I have responsibilities that prevent me from traveling now, much as I wish I could have. I expressed that to his ex-wife, and she said he needed to hear from old friends and have their thoughts and prayers. So I decided to write him again.
His confusion and disorientation could have been the result of insufficient oxygen reaching his brain, but I had the feeling a lot of it was fear. Our bodies want to survive, no matter what our consciousnesses may think. We’re habituated to them, so it’s hard to imagine how to exist without a body. And our culture has legends about death that few can validate. If we believe in a punishing God instead of a merciful one, that may make death that much more terrifying.
So I told him I thought he was probably frightened, and that I expected to be too, when my time comes. I told him that he had so many friends who cared about him because they saw something positive in him, and that he should believe they were right; that all of us make mistakes, none of us does all we should, but that God understands that much better than we do.
I wrote the letter Wednesday night at work, and sent it online to his ex-wife the next morning. Unknown to me, just as I was typing and sending it, he was either dying, or already had. I hope he had some consciousness of what I, and his many other friends, were feeling for him.
I think his friend’s reactions were probably more sadness than shock. Those of us who knew him at all well knew this was coming. My attitude about death at work is what I felt about his: I prefer to see people go quickly and easily, and not hang on suffering for days or weeks. Death is universal, and who can say who’s best prepared to face it?
He had a life not entirely happy, but his unhappiness wasn’t constant either. His background seems to have been difficult, possibly even tragic, but he still achieved some happiness. Maybe it was a mistake for him to have remained tied so closely to his old high school, and the friends he met there. He told me at least once that he’d like to live in an artistic community (which the small town he lived in was not) such as I think he’d seen in the area around Vancouver in British Columbia, but that never worked out.
But if that was a mistake, he still made a lot of people happy with his company, and I’m glad his last days were there, where he had people to care for him and make him as comfortable as possible.
I suspect his strongest talent was for making friends. He made a lot of them, and all will miss him. Maybe few of us ever gave him back all we could or should have, but enjoying his company wasn’t the worst thing we could have done. I think and hope he enjoyed us too.

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