NEW YORK — In the last 10 years I have lost a number of close and casual friends. That's occurred not because of war, terrorism, epidemic, or natural disaster, but brought on by the simple fact that I am in my mid-70s, and my friends are the same age or a bit older.
I have reached that time of life when I sometimes grope to recall ordinary words and well-known names, tend to become too easily tired, and become more susceptible to physical breakdown and terminal disease. I also think about life in terms of days and months rather than years, less about future plans — trips, books to write, the quest for new experiences — and more about getting through my day-to-day existence.
Becoming old also means I increasingly talk with friends about our respective illnesses and mortality. Still, most of us don't stoically acquiesce or embrace what is a certainty in life — death. We either discover the means to repress and deflect, or when directly threatened by serious illness, struggle against that ultimate reality.
Freud said it best: "To listen to us we believe that death is natural, undeniable, and inevitable. In practice we are accustomed to act as if matters are quite different. We have shown an unmistakable tendency to put death aside, to eliminate it from life. We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death."
Startled every time
However, if I am unable to imagine my own death, (I just can't believe I won't continue being conscious of my daily experience), I have seen a number of people I know die, and, to different degrees, have mourned their passing. I have lost close colleagues, friends I hadn't seen in years, a couple we spent a great deal of time together with, a new friend in London of seven or eight years, and a number of other people that I cared about. It has happened often enough that the death of friends now rarely comes as a surprise, but I still can be startled every time it occurs, moving me to reflect about what it means to lose friends.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that we feel deep pain about the loss of a friend, "For there is in every individual something which is inexpressible, peculiar to him alone, and is, therefore, absolutely and irretrievably lost."
I have thought a great deal about that quote when responding to a dying friend who I lost touch with over the years, despite his living only four blocks from my apartment. We met in my first year in grad school at Ohio University — he had been born in that Ohio college town of Athens — a handsome, articulate cellist, passionate about music, who entered college after serving in the Navy. He came from one of the few black families (his father was a jazz musician who worked in his later years as a handyman for the college) in a town that was nestled in Appalachia, an impoverished region with few minorities, and much racial discrimination.
At Ohio U. this friend and I became part of a world of aspiring writers, painters, musicians, political activists, and just people who didn't fit in, black and white, who talked, drank, and partied together. We were a minority in a school dominated by frats and sororities, football and drunken homecoming games, where beefy men wearing derby hats drank from flasks, and where a general anti-intellectual atmosphere prevailed. Some of us established a bond that continued when I returned to New York, where my friend had emigrated so he could study the cello.
Our friendship endured until the 1970s, and then without any conflict or emotional break, we drifted apart. I started seeing him only when we accidentally bumped into each other in the street or on a bus.
My friend always projected a persona that was smart, charming, and well balanced, but when he drank he could at times be emotionally volatile, taking out his anger usually on people weaker than himself. He also never seemed to deal with his failure to take full advantage of both his artistic gifts and opportunities, and his musical career never took off.
In the years we were good friends, instead of talking about what had gone wrong, he indulged in self-pity and blame that prevented him from seeing his situation with any clarity. Still, if I no longer sought him out, whenever we met I felt we had a deep connection that lay beneath our superficial chats.
'Peculiar to him alone'
During the last few years, he became grievously ill because of kidney failure, and I felt a need to see him more often, visiting him at home, in a hospital, and then one last time at a hospice, where we had a brief but emotionally riveting conversation. We talked nostalgically about Ohio U, about the loving feelings he had for his wife, about confronting death, and most strikingly about what music meant to him. His last wish was to play one last cello recital in his hospice room. That desire captured his essence — a man whose deepest commitment was to being a musician.
I can't say that I really knew him on the deepest level. Our talk, except for the last time, was rarely intimate, but there was a warm, ineffable emotional link between us that transcended words. A connection that embodied Schopenhauer's words about something "peculiar to him alone" that now was "absolutely and irretrievably lost," and that I will never be able to resurrect.
Leonard Quart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org