I have a friend, let’s call him Bud. He is older. If I were casting Bud in a movie it might be Dustin Hoffman, trim, good head of hair, a schnoz, always has a bit of a smile, as if something is pleasing him deep down and bubbling up. Costumed like a tidy professor. Direct him to leap up from a table when a friend approaches - a spry 80-something bantam.
Bud greets his day with jauntiness. His profundity catches me off guard. I don’t know why it should. I know him to be very well read, a culler of the Times, educated, traveled, retired from careers in the military and the arts, and to have been bruised by life. Without spelling it out, Bud has faced what most of us shouldn’t. Is it that face-off with tragedy that has made him so appreciative of the graces he encounters? Whatever it is, he points them out with impunity. That catches me off guard, too. His compliments arrive stealthy, like a drone, with precision. It’s easy to get used to, as with someone who massages the knot in your shoulders without obligation. Such generosity of spirit is like beautiful weather: it makes you feel good. Perhaps, it is faith (we don’t discuss it), but he’ll frequently use the word “bless,” as someone might pepper their speech with a “cool” or a “sweet,” a pronouncement of fact.
I’m not good at goodbyes and I can’t articulate the welling of feeling at the moment of departure. I choke, verbally and emotionally, becoming lumpy. I have stopped beating myself up about it, it’s just how I am, and those to whom I bid farewell, if they have half a heart, figuratively, pat me on the head. Dear, dear. My daughter very adroitly deals with this trait in me, by simply standing quietly outside of airports or a dorm, like ignoring a faux pas at a holiday table. Bud, on the other hand, is good at so-longs. He will sum up the visit, toss in a “bless,” and off he goes. You begin to look forward to the next time he comes to visit in however many years. Years. Years can bollix even the most faithful. In a recent email he confessed to being in a “mid-January funk,” to having “winter grumbles.” Bud went on:
The last 10 days have been filled with obituaries of dear friends and lovers. It is a sign of my age that when I call a former buddy to tell of another friend's passing, I discover that the former buddy has also recently died.
In Renascence, Edna St. Vincent Millay tells of a young woman (she herself was a teenager when she wrote the poem) who lies back in some fresh grass, looking at the sky, and naively, as a young mind will, probes eternity. Abruptly, she is sucked down into her grave. (Before we had CGI, there was poetry.)
I saw and heard and knew at last
The How and Why of all things, past,
And present, and forevermore.
The Universe, cleft to the core…
For my omniscience paid I toll
In infinite remorse of soul.
No hurt I did not feel, no death
That was not mine; mine each last breath…
After she has felt, infinitely, the agony of all dying souls, seen her vision of eternity made manifest, having “ceased” – just as suddenly - she is yanked from her grave, and her nightmarish vision, her “thatched roof”…
Fell from my eyes and I could see,
A drenched and dripping apple-tree…
Into my face a miracle
Of orchard-breath, and with the smell -
I breathed my soul back into me.
(I have never taken for granted the sight of rain dripping from a leaf, not in the forty years since reading that line.)
I have had a lot of older friends. When I was 21 (no, it was not a very good year), I moved to New York City, and socialized with no one less than 70 for the first six months. It happened those were the people I was first introduced to, and, subsequently, their cohorts. I liked them and I learned of their wisdoms and was ever comfortable in their company. For the most, I was ignored or spoken over. What had I to offer other than to be able to go for gin? I provided witness to the telling of lives.
I have continued to friend elders and heard their plaints and rants as they endured the price of long life, longer than those they have loved.
And I have known the arms already, known them all –
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair.
How do you say goodbye to that? That memory, I mean? Life, I really mean. Repeatedly.
Don’t ask me. I am soon enough to find out for myself. In the – mean – time, it is mine to tut “Dear, dear.” I have often quoted, in my lame attempt to condole, the etching on the grave stone of Emily Dickenson: “Called Back.” I guess that’s comforting. I am not religious but it doesn’t matter, we all go back to some essence. It isn’t the past I address, but the present, with empty, tepid, puerile efforts. But, then I apply the advice of Eva LeGallienne, my teacher and friend who was in her 70’s when we met, when she spoke about the task of acting, “DO something about it.”
I wrote to Bud:
Very, very difficult…facing such sadness…and no real help for it…perhaps the only thing to do is watch a silly, wonderful movie, like “Funny Face”…or any of the Thin Man series, embrace the day, eat a piece of cake, give a kindness – as I know you do, continually, generously.
A few days later, I received an email back from Bud in which he said he had been watching “Glee” on television. (That fits into the Silly, Wonderful category.)
Yes, I'm in a better mood now. I have a new tooth, $1100-worth, to smile on the bleak terrain. And I've been to three musical evenings so diverse, I had to smile! Last Friday to hear the Shaun Booker Blues Band. I've become a fan of the dynamic singer with shoulders to match the First Lady.
Better than contemplating a wet leaf.