My close friend died on August 30th of a liver cancer that came upon him so quickly that he didnt 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 Ms 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 wasnt 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 ones 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.
Before he destroyed his mind with wine, my friend had been a brilliant writer and his life of writing had been closely tied up with my own. We used to entertain ourselves by sitting in pubs and over drinks (how hard it is for me to picture him without a drink and a cigarette) alternately elaborate an endless story about a man named Mandible who lived in Cracow before the War and whose downstairs neighbor was a young boy named Laszlo Toth. Mandible was a very fat man, an artist who never left his apartment, but who painted over and over again on a single 300 pound canvas the goings on that he could see in the square beneath his window. Laszlo Toth (who was destined to become the Laszlo Toth who smashed the Pieta with a hammer) ran errands for Mandible and had long discussions with him about Poland. Much of this long-running story was written on paper napkins, sometimes with silly bar sayings on them that we would try to work into the dialogue. We would also discuss each others short stories and sometimes edit each others work as well. His opinion became, and remained, very important to me.Over time, as the drink consumed his strength, he could only manage to get out a few paragraphs at a time, if that. From being a voracious reader of good books, he became a lazy reader of books that he had read before and his wit started to become lazy too. I still found that I needed his approval, but it would take him weeks to read something I sent him (if he read it at all) and his responses were seldom more than a sentence.Still, it wasnt until he died that I realized how much of my own self image was bound to my vision of him. I would not only self edit my writing based on what I thought he would think of it. I self-edited my life in certain ways as to not get so far ahead of him or (in my sensibilities) away from him. I am not saying that I modeled my life in terms of what I thought he would approve or disdain. But I did hold myself back as a writer. I was, in fact, in love with an image of him; a fantasy where he was resurrected from the dim complacency of a pilot light that his life had become; a fantasy where he still burned as brilliantly as he once had, and so did I.I couldnt make it to his funeral. He lived in France and I live in Chicago. He had lived there for 25 years, ending up as an English teacher. This great physical and existential distance between us was a big reason why our relationship had never quite collapsed under the weight of what we had both become. On those rare occasions where we met, we could keep up the facade. He was born Catholic, but was a life-long agnostic.Even so,his very Catholic sister arranged a brief service with a priest at the funeral home before he was taken off for cremation. At the same time as that service, I sat in my living room in Chicago and prayed 20 decades of the Rosary for him and felt that I was doing the first tangible thing I had done for him in years.And then he was gone.