The First of Many

July 31, 2015

Platitudes, by definition, are seemingly thoughtful comments used so often as to become trite and boring. That does not make them any less true. Death is a part of every life. The commonality of death does not make it any less shocking, or any more welcome. I have seen injury and loss in the operating room, in the hospital, in the trauma bay, but there has been little of death in my personal life. My mother-in-law’s passing from cancer in 2005 is the only exception. The interlude cannot last. I am old enough to start seeing friends and family die from natural causes. I have a large enough social circle that death, be it natural or unnatural is bound to strike. Still, one is never prepared for the loss of a friend.

Terry’s death announcement

An old friend died this week: old in that we have been friends since college, not so old in that he was 6 months younger than me.

We met in the freshman dorm in Eugene. We were two, definitely non-white, young Oregonians enjoying college life not too far from home. Terry was gentle, and funny, occasionally rude and sarcastic, and utterly dependable. He was, in other words, a great friend.

We stayed in touch over the years. Neither of us could bear to leave Oregon for long. It has been several years though, since we have spoken. I lost track of him, making the sight of his obituary in today’s paper all the more heart breaking. Life was simpler in college. I do not regret growing up, but life is hard.

Goodbye my friend.

Dorm life early 1984

How do you categorize the people in your life? I have friends who I consider family; I see many of them much more often than my brother or sister. Does that make them more important than my siblings or my parents; do the emotions of the relationship rage stronger? I don’t think so. Who is a friend, and who qualifies as an acquaintance? Does time and distance matter? I have had many friends come and go over the years. I have had some return as if no time had passed. I know the loss of years did not matter: We were just friends with plenty to talk about.

Time and separation complicate a relationship and muddy the emotional waters. I felt sadness and loss over Terry’s death. My sadness was tinged with guilt over not having seen him in years. What happen to him? How did he die? Was he happy, did he have a good life? I do not know the answers to these questions. I am ashamed to say that I was not a good enough friend to look up his family for a response (I was out of town for his wake). A part of me was worried that I would not like what I learned about his life and death.

My sense of loss was complicated, if not selfish. If Terry died, who was next? And what does his death say about my own mortality. Several of my friends laugh at me because I still read the newspaper. I look at the obituaries for old patients, friends, and colleagues even as I read the movie reviews and editorials. Their deaths are markers along the road of my life: They should be acknowledged if not witnessed.

The markers seem closer together these days. Youth is wasted on the young. The college age me did not appreciate the time and opportunity still to come.

Today, I am well aware that death is a part of life. The slower, grayer, older me does not need regular reminders.