Walk with Jim
Reflections on a friend’s death
I returned from a doctor’s appointment today to find my wife on the phone. It only took a moment to figure out who she was talking to, and what the call was about. My friend of 47 years was dead.
The progression of my Jim’s disease, combined with the heavy doses of morphine administered to ameliorate his pain, robbed him of his wits during his very last days, but only a few weeks ago we had lunch in Sacramento, and he was still alive, still cognizant of everything, still able to tease the waitress and still able to fill a restaurant with his laughter.
But even an untrained eye could see his time was not long, that death was standing behind his chair, the most prominent waiter in that room.
We did the thing that people do, the four of us—my friend; his wife; my wife, Karen; and me—making small talk and pretending things were as they’d always been.
It was a sunny fall day in Sacramento, nice along the river, reminiscent of other, better times spent on that river. After lunch, we walked the boards of Old Sac, and I liked the solidity of our boot heels on the wood planking.
We walked those planks a couple of years ago, when he was first diagnosed with cancer, when there was still a shred of hope, though things seemed dire even then. Of that day, I wrote:
There are worse ways to spend a day than hanging out with a friend who has terminal cancer. Though such a day is sad beyond the parameters of that word, and though such a day with such a friend is all bound up with loss and concern, there is also something redemptive and rich in a day like that. To walk beside an old friend with the sun on your shoulders and a hundred memories in both your minds is quietly celebratory. If you take that walk with the acceptance that aging requires of us all, then it will be remarkably sweet, even as the spectre of death joins you in that stroll.
But on this walk, on this day, you will savor all the moments—the ice-cream cones you buy on a moment’s impulse, the bench you find that offers a nice little view of the passing parade, and the children who toddle by as that parade passes, taking their place in the moving tableau through which you and your friend are moving, on time’s conveyor belt.
You will be more keenly present, and you will be infinitely more tolerant of your friend’s flaws—that tendency to interrupt that used to drive you nuts, or that phrase held too dear and used too often. Now, of course, with time running out, those minor annoyances grow endearing.
So, this is all precious—these moments, this sunshine, this flickering presence of your friend beside you who sits harboring the cells that will end such moments once and for all.
Denial takes a seat beside you, and when there is occasion for laughter, your friend’s laugh is the heartiest of all. But, when you say your goodbyes and take the silent ride back home, Acceptance will hitch a ride with you, and so you’ll slip a CD into the player and listen to a song from days long gone, and then, before you get home and hug your wife a little more closely than on most other days, Acceptance will lay a hand on your shoulder, and you will think then that all the riches and all the joys shared with all those you loved were only possible because our days were always numbered and our hours always fleeting.