friends of friends / after a good friend dies

by nikki meredith

porch at sea ranchWhat falls away is always. And is near.

-Theodore Roethke

About ten years ago, four of us – two couples — were sitting on the deck of a house at Sea Ranch, shielding our eyes from the dazzling sun. We were passing the binoculars around, trying to spot dolphins leaping through the surf.  Though the sun was bright, it was a chilly day with enough wind to create a chop on the ocean.   The house belonged to the couple we were with. The husband of the couple would be dead in a month.

We knew he had malignant melanoma and that it was spreading.  We were savoring every minute of a bittersweet time, so heartbreakingly precious because it would be so heartbreakingly short.

My husband and I both loved this man. We loved him before he got sick but we loved him even more after he got sick because of how he handled it.  Not because he was stoic. Precisely because he wasn’t.  He talked openly about everything and because he talked about everything, we did too — his fears, our fears, his sadness and ours. The only time it wasn’t easy to be with him was right before he’d go in for tests to see to which organs the tumors had invaded since his last tests.  There was nothing that could calm his anxiety then and it made me feel helpless for him and angry at the doctors who put him through it.  He was watching his death sentence manifest itself a tumor at a time.

That day on the deck at Sea Ranch one of us, I can’t remember which one, asked him what made him the saddest about dying.

After a minute or two he said, “When I think about the parties. I’ll be the guy who isn’t there.”

We were part of a circle of friends, mostly couples, who had great parties, many of them at that Sea Ranch house.  They weren’t all great.  Sometimes there was conflict, there were jealousies, there was boredom but that day on the deck, he was only thinking about the fun. The party that stands out for me and perhaps the one he was thinking about was on New Years Eve 1999 at the Sea Ranch house. Right before midnight the group  – about 12 of us — walked to the cliffs overlooking the breakers and waited for Y2K to do whatever it was going to do.  The night was clear and bracingly cold but we were bundled. At one point we started to sing — Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Elvis Presley. One song seamlessly led to another and for that hour or so no one was dying; no one was angry or sad. We were just so fucking happy to be alive and to be together.

I don’t remember how any of us responded that morning on the deck when he said he was sorry that he’d be the guy who wouldn’t be at the party.  I assume we expressed a version of it won’t be the same without you. What I wish I had said, what I wish I had known was this: after your gone, there won’t be any parties. The “us” that we’ve had, will vanish.    

The first to go was my relationship with his wife to be followed soon after by the end of my husband’s relationship with his wife. And then, one by one, couple by couple, we fell away.  Arguments, divorces, deaths. This pattern has been repeated in my life several times now. Every time people die with whom I am close, what surrounds them goes too. Like spokes on a wheel. Without the hub, the spokes have nothing to attach to.

I first experienced this when my parents died.  I had the expectation that I would stay friends with their circle of friends. Because we have a small extended family, my parents’ friends were my functional aunts and uncles. I remembered picnics in Griffith Park; dinner parties and countless Easter brunches and Thanksgiving dinners my parents hosted. The constant was spirited debates about movies, books, politics but also my mother’s skill at facilitating conversation and my father’s high octane martinis. But when my parents were over, those aunts and uncles were over for me.  I was surprised. At my mother’s memorial service I remember imagining the dinners I would invite these friends to.  We all tried, sort of. I wrote a few polite letters as did a few of them.  My parent’s closest friends invited me out to dinner one night but I found myself struggling to find topics to discuss. Something was missing. What was missing was my parents. I never invited any of them to a single dinner let alone dinner party. How could this be? These people had been such fixtures in my childhood and young adulthood. It was my first realization that continuity is an illusion.

Last year I lost a friend to suicide. He was from New York and still had family and friends there. Over the years, when I went to New York I spent time with his best friend’s family. I considered them my friends.

His brother and I had seen him through a serious depression 20 years before. We joked that we were his mobile crisis team; there were two subsequent depressions where it was necessary to reconstitute the team.  During those times we had plenty to talk about. Did my friend’s shrink know how depressed he was? Did his medication need changing?  Was it time to consider inpatient hospitalization? Electric Shock Therapy?

This summer was the unveiling of his headstone. His friends and family came from New York. His brother and I exchanged a warm hug but after a few comments about the heat wave in the east and the hotel where he was staying in California, there was an awkward silence. It suddenly felt the way it does when you and a work colleague find yourselves in a social situation you aren’t at all prepared for. The day after the unveiling, I had lunch with one of my dead friend’s oldest friends from New York and her daughter.  There was a flow of conversation but not about anything that I cared about. At one point I looked across the table and realized that though I had known both of them for over two decades, they were now strangers to me.  When our mutual friend was alive, the disparate parts – us — made up a whole. Without him, we reverted to fragmented bits.

When people I love die, I’m astonished that life goes on without them. I wake up every morning surprised that it seems to be a morning just like the mornings before they died.  From the outside, one day looks like another. The ruddy-faced checker at the grocery store is still there.  The same people take in the dry cleaning, fill the prescriptions, groom the dog. But life isn’t the same at all. An entire constellation surrounding the people I loved was disassembled when they were.

I imagine for many of you it’s different.  You try harder. You stay in touch. You make it work. You find new things in common or you decide that the memories of your mutual friend are enough. You do what it takes to keep the circle in tact. I envy you that.