A Life Lived
It’s been six months. It feels like longer since you’ve been gone. I missed your funeral because I was in Europe. One of your best friends missed you by a couple of hours. He caught the red-eye home from San Francisco, but you passed away at midnight.
I didn’t like you when we first met. It’s funny about that restaurant – we seem so welcoming, but in a wait staff the size of a small family, every newcomer is eyed with suspicion. No one liked me all that much at first when I started there either. You have to prove yourself. Plus sometimes you seemed to be playing a game where you took some of the best tables, and by 8:00 suddenly felt the need to split, as if you were doing us a favor by leaving early.
I don’t only want to write what I liked about you, and eulogize you in a sense. I know you would hate that bullshit, as if the fact that someone has died prevents us from acknowledging what made them human – their faults – when our flaws and the inevitability of death is what defines us as human in the first place.
A true testament comes from recognizing someone’s faults, accepting our own, and realizing that despite it all we are still capable of love. That’s what will make you an enduring memory; that I didn’t like you, and grew to love you.
It happened gradually. In a way it was necessary. How can you dislike someone you see every day of the week? It was survival – we spent seven hours a day together, it made sense to get along. There wasn’t anything in particular to dislike about you (besides the suspected table snatching) I just didn’t understand you. I didn’t know if half of what came out of your mouth was a lie or the truth. The more I got to know you, the more I suspected things of being true. And you loved to gossip, while somehow maintaining a look of feigned indifference. Some things I didn’t want to believe.
I once heard this theory, that if you learn three things about someone, it is impossible to hate them.
I sure learned my fair share about you. Do you remember, there at your bedside, how I recounted them for you? Oh, I’m sure I got some details wrong, but I remember most things. Like the time you showed me a picture of yourself at twenty, and I didn’t know at first that I was looking at a younger version of you. Damn you were good-looking. You knew it. Girls just could not stay away from you. There was the girl who was the reason for your sun tattoo, the one on your left arm. Your mother would have been happy if she had married you. The girl probably would have been happy as well. Instead, when she asked if you two would last forever, you proposed (on the spot, or so the story goes) that you get tattoos together, and that they would last forever. You were cremated. Nothing lasts forever. Each day the sun will rise, and man will live in defiance of his own mortality.
You told me once that there are certain people who don’t die. These people always beat the odds, you said. No matter how many stupid things they do, they never seem to perish, while the risk averse among us do one stupid thing and wind up at our graves.
You weren’t supposed to die.
There were some stories you told me that I knew were simply for the shock value. I know you enjoyed seeing how far you could push me, how scandalizing you could get. There was the incident where you went into a woman’s house for a drink, and ended up in her bed. You told me that you hadn’t always been that way, that at one point you had considered sex something special. That you received your first kiss from your best friend, and back in high school when a very attractive girl gave you Twister sheets for your birthday, you didn’t know what she wanted you to do with them.
Your dad was hard on you, and school didn’t suit you, but God were you smart. Too smart. So smart that you knew exactly what people wanted to hear. Smart enough to own up to your addiction, which in a way didn’t make it seem like such a threat, but I think you tricked yourself too. You needed a fifth of vodka every night, but if you were in Cali, you would go over the border and get some pills to curb your addiction. So it was lethal, but you “knew” what to do, which made the threat seem less real.
I used to hate you for making me enable you. I hated going into the store to buy vodka for you, or stopping on our way home those nights when I would drop you off. I didn’t understand why you wouldn’t go before your shift, if you knew you needed it. But you knew I’d go for you; that if you told me you were going to get the shakes and vomit uncontrollably and die if you didn’t have a drink, you knew that I’d go. The sick irony is that drinking is what killed you. I used to wonder if you died, would I feel remorse in your death, for those few times I went ahead and picked up the liquor for you. But people like you don’t die.
In case you were wondering, I have never once felt guilty. Perhaps I should. There was the time Josephine called me in tears because it was six on a Friday night, she was almost at home in Philly, and you had called her to say you had the desire to go to rehab, and could she cover your shift that night? If you’d needed to go you should have gone – should have walked out the door of the restaurant that evening, covering your shift be damned. The restaurant would have survived, but that’s not who you were. The truth is, I didn’t believe you. I found it too suspicious that you had suddenly been stricken with the desire to go to rehab at six on the night of your shift. The request you had made of Josephine was ludicrous. By the time she would have gotten to the restaurant it would have been pointless, plus she was in hysterics. I told her not to go, and to not feel guilty. We decided you could go at the end of your shift, that you were probably lying to get out of working. That you could go the next day. But damn you. If you’d really felt that way you should have just gone without making the rest of us complicit in your sins.
I loved the way you would look at me sometimes, raising your eyebrows ever so slightly as if to say, “Really?” You were the type of guy I would have never associated with, but circumstance put us together, and instead I got to know you. You would be late to work, tell me you had sex in the employee bathroom, had snorted cocaine; but those actions didn’t define you.
You were haunted by your brother’s death. Blamed yourself. You were quick to forgive everyone but the one person who needed your forgiveness the most. You gave him your ID, you didn’t stick the needle into his vein. You told me the story of that night more than once; how everyone thought the dead brother was you. He was the kid that did everything right. You never said it, but the thought was clear, “It should have been me.” As if death discriminates based on the merit of our virtue.
Woodchuck Cider. Your brother had a list of things to buy or do on his desk, and Woodchuck had made the cut as a top priority. You found the list, and could remember every item on it. Now I carry that memory.
People loved your stories, that they could relate to you, that you were funny. You had no pretenses. The task of telling people you had passed fell to me. It wasn’t that many names of people who had made it onto your final list. I spent days trying to reach Bonnie, and then she spent a frantic hour trying to reach me. We finally connected while I was in line at the grocery store. Buying groceries – how mundane. She was sobbing, and I was the Grim Reaper. It was July 3rd, and I remember thinking that I must have ruined her fourth of July. I told Ernie and Barbara, and Jack and Shirley. I became mad at the people who said it was inevitable, I ruined dinner one evening for the man with the toupee. I informed the husband of your elementary school teacher. They wanted to come to your funeral, but they had a wedding that day. Life is for the living. What a horrible saying.
You had gone to the funeral of a close friend right before you died. They had played Amazing Grace and other hymns. You hated that. I wasn’t there, but I’m sure that at your passing the music more resembled the Grateful Dead. You were confused that day over the reading that was done by the priest, all about sheep, you kept saying. Somehow I realized that it was about the oil lamps, and the ten bridesmaids who were waiting for the bridegroom, five prepared, and five not. I explained how it was a parable to be ready for our own death. That the priest had been saying, “Sheets,” not sheep. You still declared it stupid. If your life had been a movie script, outside the margins of that dialogue would have been scribbled “foreshadowing.”
It was the incident with the pen that did you in. You were never quite right after that. They gave you medicine so that you would not physically need to drink. But the disease is so much more than that. It’s mental. I knew the first time I caught a whiff of vodka on your breath, but you made up an excuse. Said the doctor had told you to drink, to wean you off, so that your body didn’t go into shock. Maybe that was true. It sounded like a load of crap.
You were yellow when I said goodbye to you. Jaundiced. Bile. Your eyes were still such a piercing blue. You kept struggling to open them, I believe to acknowledge me, that you knew I was there. Your mother said it was the most responsive you had been in hours. You won the superlative Best Eyes in high school. Now they are closed to the world forever. I still pray for you, when I remember. It feels weird to me to pray for the dead. I remember one time I asked what you wanted me to pray about for you, and you said, “Salvation.” I believe you were serious.
That didn’t happen for you in this life, so I will pray that it comes for you in the next.