Shortly before Thanksgiving 1992 I happened upon the obituary of a young man I’d known in grade school. He was 29 and had died after a “brief illness.” Another friend who’d, ironically, attended the same grade school (although we didn’t know each other back then) told me that term – “brief illness” – was code for AIDS. Well…sometimes, yes. Then again, it’s really no one’s business what takes the life of a person. Still, it bothered me back then. I had just turned 29 and, for the first time in my life, contemplated my own mortality more seriously than ever before. As someone who suffered from severe childhood depression, coupled with schoolyard bullying and alcoholism, I had thought about death a lot; a hell of a lot more than any kid normally would. But, when I saw that obituary, I thought about death and what legacy I might leave on Earth with a greater sense of intensity.
When my father’s family had its usual Christmas Eve gathering at his mother’s house that year, I asked a cousin who’d also attended that same grade school, if she remembered that young man. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “He died.”
Oh, yeah. And it’s cold out there. Rather matter-of-fact. The full scope of life’s brevity didn’t really hit until the following year, when a close friend, Daniel*, died of AIDS at his mother’s house. For the first time in my nearly three decades, someone close to me – other than a relative – had died.
In the ensuing years, I’ve lost a few more friends and acquaintances. I believe, when you reach the half century mark, life takes on all sorts of different meanings. Things that are, or are not important switch places.
About a month ago I decided to conduct a more intensive search on an old friend, Heath*, who I’d met in 1997. Normally people of my generation who want to find out what happened to old friends would either have to break out a Ouija board or scour a police report. But I did it the new-fashioned way: the Internet. No candles needed.
Heath was a quirky little character; all of 5’5” with bad teeth and a penchant for all things western. He also had a fascination with the Titanic. After James Cameron’s 1997 version of one of the 20th century’s worst man-made calamities, Heath became obsessed with the story. He saw Cameron’s movie more than a few times. Then again, I’ve seen “The Poseidon Adventure” no less than 50 times. I guess we both relished in nautical tragedies. We also shared a love for muscle cars and travel to exotic places. He’d actually managed to do the latter more than me; several more times, but I never held that against him.
I think I last saw Heath sometime in the summer of 2001, after I’d been laid off from the bank and had some free time to enjoy. It was the summer before the great 9/11 horror; the last bit of a romantic hangover from the spectacular late 1990s. Being that contemplative, soul-searching type that most writers are, I reacted like most people during the aftermath and began pondering the whereabouts of old friends. It’s what prompted me to reach out to another friend, Tom*, someone I hadn’t heard from in months. I’d eventually make contact with Tom, which culminated in a brief roommate situation the following spring, which turned out to be a disaster, but still had a positive ending because I ended up with his puppy who I renamed Wolfgang. In the midst of all that, Heath occasionally hopped into my mind. But, with my new job at an engineering firm, traveling and such, while still getting used to having a dog in the house, I had to make him hop back out.
He wasn’t the only one, of course. Plenty of folks from my past kept trying to work their way back into my conscious mind and very busy life. The health of both my parents became tenuous; I tried to get my novel published; my job started requiring me to travel; I resumed my pursuit of a college degree; I bought a new truck; I had foot surgery; my father got sick twice within one year; I got laid off from the engineering company.
Old friends? I just didn’t have much time for them anymore. I needed to start shoving useless crap out of my brain to make room for more important stuff. I know the human mind is supposed to be infinite, like star systems and Thanksgiving turkey. But there’s only so much I want to have inside of me.
So everything stopped for me, literally ground to a halt, when I found out Heath died back in March. He’d hopped back into my mind again, actually he’d been hopping into my mind for the past several months; as if really hoping to get my attention. He kept jumping up and down, almost yelling, ‘Goddamnit, man! I need to tell you something!’
Okay, okay! Damn! Some people just don’t know when to quit. But Heath wasn’t that intrusive type. It was kind odd that he’d kept coming at me so much over so short a period of time. That new-fashioned way of finding people you knew way back when doesn’t salve the pain of finding out they expired; it just delivers the shock more quickly than waiting on a phone call or the mail.
Heath had died back in March – no, found dead – in his North Dallas apartment. Found dead?! What the fuck?! I continually re-read the online obituary, hoping the digital verbiage would buckle from my shocked, angry glares and reveal more.
Who found him? What made them go over there? Apartment in North Dallas? The same one off Greenville Avenue where I’d hang out with him and other friends; talking about cars, listening to rock music and playing with his two small dogs?
The words on the screen could say no more. The photo of Heath posted alongside the obituary made him look almost menacing; it was unlike any expression I’d seen from him before. In fact, he was almost unrecognizable. That’s really why I couldn’t (wouldn’t) believe it.
That’s not him! That’s some other 5’5” guy with a natty ball cap covering his receding hairline who lived in an apartment in North Dallas and had a replica of the Titanic in his living room.
No, it’s not. It was Heath. No one else I know would have built a replica of the Titanic and keep it in his living room. The post said little else: he lived alone; he hadn’t been ill, so nobody knew what caused his death; friends had to pool together money for his funeral; no relatives could be found.
Is there a proper way to respond to something like that? If there’s a book on Amazon, or some kind of web site where I can find out, please let me know in the comments section below. Your consideration will be highly appreciated.
A few years ago I chunked my four high school annuals into the recycle bin. In the fall of 1978, I had been so eager to get the hell out of that parochial grade school near downtown Dallas and begin a new life at a new school with new people. By the time I graduated in June of 1982, I was filled with the same kind of excitement. I just wanted to get the fuck out of there. I hated high school even more than grade school; more than looking at myself naked in the mirror and realizing how ugly I am; more than going to a German wedding and finding out the open bar ran out of beer before the reception. But, in the intervening years, I did wonder what happened to the four or five friends I had in high school. I found one on Facebook. I’m sure many others just don’t care to bridge that gap between snail-mail letters and social networks that plagues people of my generation. Others may be in the grave, and I just haven’t found out yet.
Death figures prominently in my novel. I really don’t have a fascination with it. I just accepted long ago that it was another chapter in life. And I realized – after watching my parents cringe at the sight of old friends in the obituaries – that you don’t get up there in years without going through some bumps and bruises. Some of those bumps are learning an old friend died, and – like a job offer that went into your spam queue two weeks ago – goddamn if you knew about it until now.
My father got emotional a few months ago, when I culled the obituaries of the local paper and found someone who’d attended the same East Dallas high school he did, around the same time as him. In my father’s youth, it seems all the Mexican-American folks knew one another; lived in the same neighborhoods; and went to the same schools. They had to in those days, when people were placed into boxes according to race and gender.
That’s one thing I remember fondly about Heath: neither one of us liked to be defined by other people’s expectations. We didn’t fit into predefined categories that made others happy, content and satisfied the world around them functioned the way they thought it should. His other friends couldn’t figure me out and, aside from a fascination with muscle cars and sea-bound disasters, didn’t know what we had in common. That’s okay. I didn’t care for all of his friends. I’m sure he wouldn’t have cared for some of mine. I didn’t have nearly as many friends as he did, though. He obviously had enough to collect money to cover funeral expenses. Unless my parents were here, I don’t know if any of my friends would do the same. I don’t socialize with people much.
But I’m faithful to the few friends I do have. That’s why, for example, when my friend Alan* – married with 3 kids – tells me he needs to talk about stuff over lunch on a Saturday, I’m there. When my friend Raymond*, who I wrote about a while back, calls to say life has become unbearable for him, I try to get back to him quickly. Alan once had a bout with cancer, and Raymond still carries a bullet fragment from an attempted robbery. If I lost either of them now, I can’t just go out and get a new friend, like some people get a new computer.
I’ve gotten over Heath’s unexpected death, and he’s no longer bouncing around in my mind. He got my attention. That’s the thing about old friends. Eventually they become dead friends. There’s no other alternative. I wouldn’t want one.
Image courtesy: 4-Designer.