A friend died yesterday. I’m not going to pretend that we were all that close or swoop in with some made up connection we never had. He really was a friend from over twenty years ago and, back in the day, we had some good times: a Halloween that would make The Hangover seem like a drama, the haircut of a friend that felt like a crime, and a trip to the NY Auto Show for three people in a two-seater. But we drifted apart as many people do. We maintained a mutual friend and we’d cross paths every so often; there was always that familiarity two old friends have.
At forty-two, I wasn’t really expecting to be confronted with the death of a contemporary. My uncle died a few months back so death was still with me like a bad glass of milk; he was eighty-five and it was almost expected. Bob (not his real name) was thirty-nine and diagnosed at thirty-eight with two kids and one on the way. He lived past his ‘expiration date’ as he called it and with a brand new baby, he knew he was on borrowed time. You never really see it coming.
I didn’t have his number in my phone; despite having 153 Facebook friends, he wasn’t one of them. There are few dozen people that were closer to him than me, but it didn’t make me feel any less connected to him. My friend Anthony (not his real name either) was his best man and the godfather to one of his kids.
When Bob checked himself into the hospital, Anthony went the next night and I tagged along the following day. By then, Bob was in a deep sleep he wouldn’t wake from. His sister greeted us; I knew her from the good ole days and she had married another one of my friends who has since faded.
As much as you think you’re prepared for ICU, you never really are. I put on a poker face as if it was just what I was expecting. We stood around his bed with Anthony and the sister on opposing sides; I was at the foot, yet I felt like I was looking up at him.
They talked and I arranged myself awkwardly as if everyone I’ve ever known was watching me. And then it all suddenly stopped, and we just stared. I’ve never known what to say in these moments. There's no book to refer to or a set of rules to lean on. Nothing seemed off limits yet nothing felt appropriate. Was I supposed to pray or say an Our Father or talk to him? ‘Hey Bob, how’s it going? Well besides the coma and all. How are things?’ I imagined the cancer slowly enveloping of his body, seizing the controls, pulling him the curb, shutting him down one last time, and leaving us stranded; the keys casually tossed in a sewer.
I forced a smile which evolved into a laugh and then a story: a story about a Halloween more than twenty Octobers earlier about me, Bob, and Anthony that involved two other friends, five dozen eggs, a 1980 Pontiac Sunbird, and the night. And another time when he cut Rico’s hair with a “Trust me Rico. You’re in good hands.” He proceeded to scalp Rico, who barely escaped with his ears. We laughed at how brazen Bob was.
His last six days were spent in the hospital and for the better part of it he wasn’t aware of what was happening, at least not consciously. His sisters would gather around his bed and say something to get a reaction out of him, any reaction; his eyes would remain closed and his body wouldn’t move but his heart rate would jump, and then settle back down. Then they’d do it again as if it was a game. Friends would come and go, passing the looks and an endless bag of gummy bears. His kids played video games in the ICU’s waiting room and their mother was curled up on the floor next to them.
When she greeted us, she was beyond crying. Her eyes glazed over with the weight of decisions she shouldn’t have to make. The baby was passed around like a hot potato not realizing the father she would never really know dreamed about her just down the hall.
And just like Halloween, he was the only one not stressed, not freaking out, not wondering what the consequences were or how it would all pan out; not even noticing who was around even though all eyes were on him.
The cancer was already in the brain; it couldn't be outrun forever, or be coaxed to leave. In the end it did it's damage, unbuilding all that it took a lifetime to build. Before I could make my third visit, time quite literally ran out.
I left a part of me in that hospital, maybe the best part, but I somehow wound up ahead. In the end, it took Bob; that couldn’t be helped. But it couldn’t have Halloween even though I’d lost it – until I walked into Bob’s room last week. And I’ll hold on to it this time, Trust me, trust me. We'll always have Halloween.