There are people among us that stand out. Others gravitate to them, value their friendship, and celebrate who they are. We feel we know these people like no other, and when in the company of others that also know them our common familiarity is like a meal shared among friends. We count on them and they don’t let us down. They openly and loudly stand for things we quietly believe in. If this person is your boss you keep your job. We admire these people. They are bolder than us, sometimes braver. Certain phrases are used about them repeatedly. Something memorable one such man said, a quip or a quote overheard and remembered, is recalled and retold to a mutual friend that was not there to hear it. The friend who hears the story shakes his head and smiles“Oh God, that’s just like him to say that.”
He says things we wish we had said.
We hold these people up. We expect them to be strong and they are. We look to them to provide an example and they do. It may be terribly unfair of us to lean on them so. They come to realize the role they play in the life of a group of people, even a community, and they play it out. For us perhaps. We rely on them, look to them to be consistent, on the right side of the issues. We want to know what they think. We sometimes watch where they go so we can follow. It must be a burden being strong, leaned on, and looked up to. But those people wear it well. It looks as if it comes easily.
No one can be strong all the time. Well, maybe on the outside. Everyone has a persona, an outside face, a set of expectations they try to meet, but they have to be vulnerable inside don’t they? I’m guessing because the very strong never show us anything else. They never let us inside. We put so much on these people. If it wears on them they don’t let us see. But then again we don’t want to see. We just want them close. We want their approval, their smile, their company. They make a difference in our lives and the lives of others. They are the glue which holds us together.
We don’t want them to change, so we don’t notice when they do, and if by chance we would we certainly don’t acknowledge it. We consider them rocks. But even rocks age. Age is the great agent of change. None of us want to acknowledge the frailty of our minds and bodies as the years pass. We do all we can to deny our slow mutual erosion. To admit our diminishment, and the slow ebbing of those we love would be to accept change and even death. It is their strength and consistency we value, and we refuse to see them, or ourselves, otherwise. And death? We don’t want to talk about it.
Until we can no longer deny it. Until we find ourselves and our friends weeping at the passing of a shared hero. How can it be? What will become of us now that one who held us together is gone? He was the focus, the center, the one. To be in a world where he no longer lives is a shock. What happens now?
We forget, or we have not yet realized, that the dead live on within us. Not just in memory, but in spirit. Our spirits. Or could that be our souls? We all give things to others, hopefully more than we take, and the strong, the special give us more than we ever expected. We have to hold that up. We have to make it our own and pass it on to others as they did to us. Like lighting a candle off another, one lit, another waiting to flame, we need to cup our hands around it till it flares and burns bright.
He was part of our old guy’s weekly golf group. That group we had imagined for years as we neared the end of our working lives. Summer weekdays warm in the sun, nothing to do all afternoon, cheering the good shots, ignoring the bad, unless of course either shot or swing is so stupendously awful it is impossible not to mock, then beers at the end of the day before going home for supper. The enjoyment of spending a day with friends. I like to think he looked forward to those days. We looked forward to being with him.
And then he couldn’t golf any longer, and the news of his illness began to filter out and he became very private and guarded. I assumed he was dying. There was nothing I could do. We’re all powerless in the face of it.
And then he asked me to lunch. He looked good and seemed happy. We caught up. I thanked him for helping me over the years. We talked about our kids, our wives. It was almost normal, and it felt so good.
At the end, the conversation turned to his illness and I tiptoed around it, not knowing what or how much he was comfortable in revealing. He was fairly matter of fact. He talked about his oncologist, how much he liked her, his prognosis, his future which he accepted. I hardly knew what to say.
Across the Formica in the booth, between loud inquiries from the guy who walks around with the coffee pot asking if we want a warm up, I looked at him and risk asking what I have only recently tried to imagine. It’s the elephant that lives more or less permanently in every room old people occupy.
“How does it feel?”
I could see by his face he knew exactly what I meant. He gave me a big smile along with that devilish look. I knew he was going to give me one of those unforgettable lines, and that he wasn’t about to go there.
“I’m not impressed. Not at all.”
It was so like him to say that. I miss him terribly. But I’m going to do what I can to pick up where he left off. He showed us how.