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Questions. Always questions.

Yesterday I said au revoir to a friend and colleague who worked in the office next to mine. It was difficult. My friend wasn’t retiring; he was emptying out his office because health problems left him unable to teach. In fact, he stopped teaching after about a month into the fall semester. Late in the semester, during one of his rare forays into work, he stepped into my office as he had so many times, sat down, and said, “I won’t be teaching here anymore.” It felt like I’d been punched in the chest.

He originally thought he had had a stroke, so my colleagues and I hoped he could recover and resume teaching. Sadly, the diagnosis turned out to be something we all dreaded. When he told me about it Tuesday, it felt like another heart punch. Hope was gone.

This week, he packed his office’s contents and lined up the boxes in the hallway. They will accompany him South, where he will live close to a brother and a niece so they can give him the love, comfort and care he will require in the months and years ahead.

Yesterday morning, when I arrived at work, I poked my head into his office as I had so many times, and the first thing he said was, “Please allow me to introduce myself. I’m a man of wealth and taste.” We both laughed. We both loved the Rolling Stones. One of my favorite memories involves him and me in the hallway singing “Rip This Joint” from Exile on Main Street. Passing students and faculty didn’t quite know what to make of it. So I went into my office yesterday morning, cued up “Sympathy for the Devil,” and cranked it. It was 8 a.m.; no one was around. Next thing I knew, my friend was dancing in the hallway just outside my office, doing his best Mick Jagger.

It was one last moment of shared joy.

Something I’m glad the two of us did last summer was to drive with another colleague to Rochester for a Steve Earle concert. All the way up, he kept singing three lines from Earle’s “The Devil’s Right Hand” from Copperhead Road:

The devil’s right hand
The devil’s right hand
Mama said a pistol was the devil’s right hand.

Before the show, we stopped at Dinosaur, where we quaffed a couple of adult beverages and chowed down some barbecue. But we got to the concert hall late because I got us lost, and when we arrived, we couldn’t find three seats together. So he and my other colleague sat in a row directly ahead of me. When Earle and his band ripped into “The Devil’s Right Hand,” my friend turned around with a kid-at-Christmas smile.

I was thinking about all of this yesterday afternoon on my way home. And I was thinking about another friend from another department who just learned he is in a life-and-death battle with a serious disease. And then I was thinking about all the people who have gone ahead of me: a mentally ill friend who killed himself. His was the first funeral where I ever cried. Two friends who died of the virus, which wasted one of them away to the degree that the final time I saw him, I didn’t recognize him at first. The other one left town to die. A friend died in a car crash. My father died. My father-in-law died. As I grow older the toll grows, and it grows increasingly quickly. As I thought about all of these people on the drive home, I had to keep blinking my eyes to keep the tears from coming.

I will turn 58 next month, and increasingly, I think of the idea—not mine—that with age comes wisdom. Well, where is it? How was I better able to cope with my colleague’s departure than I would have been 10 years ago? How was I better able to keep from getting choked up when I made a few farewell remarks at his going-away get-together of his friends from our department and other departments on campus? The last words I said to him were, “I love you, man.” Maybe I simply have grown wise enough to say things like that.

But that doesn’t seem to be enough. Life remains as fragile and frail as it’s ever been, and I am no wiser, other than to better know my own frailties. Is this truly wisdom? As the days and years roll from the past and present tense, I am no wiser than I was days and years ago.

Wisdom has not held up its end of the bargain.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 18th, 2012 07:58 pm (UTC)
The wisdom part isn't doled out equally to everyone. Think of all the older people you come across who are every bit as squirrelly as they were fifty years ago, if not more so.

I think that maybe perspective and discernment are what we get, and those might be better than wisdom.
Feb. 19th, 2012 02:43 pm (UTC)
I agree with the idea of "perspective" and "discernment." It's difficult, though, for me to feel their presences when I need them most.
Feb. 18th, 2012 07:59 pm (UTC)
Oh, I beg to differ. It's wisdom that allows you to appreciate the depth of the friendship, and to (sadly) grasp the magnitude of what you'll miss with his move and, ultimately, with his death. It's wisdom that allowed you to speak those words and to trust that it was ok to choke up as you spoke them.

The wisdom of age doesn't come with freedom from the pain of deep feelings, my friend. The wisdom of age is what enables us to realize how precious life is, and to treasure the people in our lives who mean something to us.
Feb. 19th, 2012 12:26 am (UTC)
Feb. 19th, 2012 02:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading, Holly.
Feb. 19th, 2012 02:45 pm (UTC)
That last part—"to treasure the people in our lives who mean something to us"—is where I come up way, way short. Maybe your calling that idea to my attention will help.
Feb. 19th, 2012 02:50 pm (UTC)
Yeah, but thankfully you're not done aging/wisdoming. We're all still works in progress.
Feb. 19th, 2012 01:00 am (UTC)
Being wise enough to say I love you is often being wise enough.
Feb. 19th, 2012 02:46 pm (UTC)
Well, I'd never said it to a guy before (except for the last time I saw my father), so I guess it's a start.
Feb. 19th, 2012 06:44 pm (UTC)
Feb. 19th, 2012 10:31 am (UTC)
Out of sight usually means out of mind, but that does not have to be the case here. You once wrote in an op-ed obit that we don’t tell the people we love or care about how we feel about them until after they are gone. You clearly have learned from that lesson you imparted on your readers. Now faced with the loss of this colleagues presence you lament your inability to connect on a human level, an imperfection of life. But you and his friends have a choice to reach out to him, to keep him in the loop of life through technology, webcams, tweets, email, etc. Make a conscious effort to interact daily or at appointed times. Isolation from friends is the most common plague of those with chronic illness. On some level we perceive that person and ourselves to be different, causing us to create a relationship that buffers our pain and distances us from further pain. You will find that this new way of connecting is at first imperfect, but in it you will find the perfection of it through its growth. You and your friend will learn that unconditional love comes in many forms and that most importantly you will be able to tell him everything you wanted to before he is gone. Holiday #
Feb. 19th, 2012 02:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Choices
Good point about the technology, Nick—and you're spot on, I think, about the isolation of people with a chronic illness. That's something I've got to work on.
Feb. 19th, 2012 05:07 pm (UTC)
I've been told that youth are the most resilient. Perhaps, then, the wisdom of age is the pain you feel. Wisdom doesn't guide you in how to handle the pain of losing friends, but perhaps it lets you feel the pain of losing friends; you know, whether from deep introspection or casual observance, how valuable your friend is to you. That isn't to imply we don't feel pain when you're young--we absolutely do--but maybe we feel it more as we grow because we understand better the gravity of what we could lose.

Feb. 20th, 2012 01:09 am (UTC)
I hadn't thought of it that way. Thanks for giving me a different angle to consider.
Feb. 21st, 2012 06:35 pm (UTC)
I was so, so glad I got to see him on Saturday. The end of a wonderful era, for sure.
Feb. 21st, 2012 11:24 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you and so many others made it back to see him this weekend. I was talking to him Friday afternoon, and he seemed taken aback—in a good way—by all the students he had talked to that day. We're unlikely to see his like again.
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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