My close friend died on August 30th of a liver cancer that came upon him so quickly that he didn’t have time to know his life was over. The cancer sat on a liver that he had destroyed in a slow suicide of almost 40 years of hard drinking and smoking. It was a suicide that I had watched and yet when the time came he was dead only a couple of hours after I heard that he was even sick.
Shock, grief, painful nostalgia; I felt all of these but almost the first thing I found myself doing was ripping out a section of a comedy I am writing and substituting this instead:
Professor M was tall and barrel-chested with the ramrod posture and forbidding look of a kind of bartender who is so intimidating that people naturally feel compelled to suck up to him to get his approval and to keep the drinks flowing. His brilliant ascent in the foggy world of post-modernism studies had been so rapid that he still dressed like a graduate student; hemming his trousers with his office stapler and affecting tuxedo shirts that were very crisply starched but so seldom washed that they had developed a disturbing smooth gray patina that one might find on a toilet one stumbled across in a long abandoned factory. Like most tenured professors, he did not like to teach undergraduates. However, unlike most tenured professors he did not postpone the inevitable to as late in the day as possible. He always took the earliest class. “Teaching these kids is like nursing a hangover. And since I already have one in the morning anyway I might as kill two birds with one stone” he would say. This explained the sun glasses at seven in the morning and the four cans of ice cold Dr. Nutt, beading sweat as he was, lined up in a row on his desk. These were the cudgels he used to do battle with his aching head, quaffing one every 15 minutes with military precision. He has taken to heart the words of a wise old emeritus who had explained that he secret of the truly great teachers was to treat students solely as a source of entertainment. So Professor M contrived to be entertained, which the students found entertaining. Which was why Professor M’s class on Business French for Reading Knowledge was one of the most popular classes on campus.
While this was a fair description of my friend when he was younger, it wasn’t until I read it over that I realized how vicious it was and how angry I was at him. Oh, there was the fact that he had died rather young (he was 56). And people seemed quick to remind me that the death of a contemporary is very much like having a bullet whizzing past one’s own ear. But aside from the pure waste of his death, I was angry that the predominant emotion that I felt after grief was liberation.