IN A FRIEND’S DEATH, A LESSON FOR THE LIVING
I wrote this in 1999; it was published in The Washington Post. Lewis, the friend I lost during a time when so many were dying of AIDS, came into my mind recently, so I decided to reprint this.
A friend of mine died today. I got the call at 6:30 in the morning as I was lacing up my running shoes. It was both a surprise and an anticipated event. Maybe death is always like that — waiting in the wings, suddenly taking over the stage. Lewis Brownback was 35; he was infected with HIV 14 years ago and it had developed into AIDS.
We never really talked about death, not at length anyway. But our conversations glanced off it occasionally; he was blunt about the impending brevity of his life. I think I saw the shadow of death in his eyes long before he told me he had AIDS.
We met a few years ago when I was living in New York and dropped by The Emporium, a small antique shop owned by my friend Leo. I met Lewis’ dog first, a tiny round tuft of black fur scurrying around the store, miraculously avoiding all the precious antiques that sat precariously in the way. In a whirlwind of efficiency, Lewis was rearranging the merchandise, periodically grumbling about so many things crammed into such small space. He was a dependable presence in my Upper Westside neighborhood. When the weather got warmer, I could count on strolling down the street in the evening and finding him at one of the outdoor restaurants. I’ll remember him for all the long cocktail conversations that stretched into the “maybe we should eat” hour.
When someone we care about dies, other feelings mingle with the inevitable sadness. There is a sudden reverence for each hour, each shiver of wind, each splash of sunlight on wet leaves. The day the news arrives is like no other day — we float, buoyed by something we can neither define nor ignore. There is a remove, a disconnectedness from people, from the ordinary busyness of daily life, but there is also an awareness of the thread that binds us together, fragile beings that we are. We are all going to die, it’s such an obvious point, yet we don’t linger on that fact until death moves in, reminding us that it’s always around, patiently waiting its turn.
We have said goodbye to so many because of AIDS. The numbers resemble combat statistics, and it is a war — against a disease that keeps outsmarting us. We use battle terms, like “fight” and “conquer”…then in the dead of night we wonder how we will handle all the grieving. It’s said that people in war-ravaged countries are unable to recall what life was like before. Was there a time when they weren’t stumbling over death? It’s hard now to remember a world before AIDS, but there was one.
The cause of Lewis’ death was listed as “cardiac arrest.” His body was so riddled with infection that his heart just got tired. The rest of us — the survivors — feel our hearts weighed down with sorrow. And we know that pushing the tears away accomplishes little. If we instead explore death, come to some understanding of it, the hope is that we can move closer to what is essential about life.
We are all too young to have said so many goodbyes. The people who have died are too young. Lewis was only 35 , and many have been far younger. The names will stretch for miles, even if we find a cure tomorrow.
Despite that, there is a sweetness threaded through the sadness of this day. In the inevitable letting go, I remind myself to hold tighter to the mysterious interplay between life and death. If I don’t, something in me will die prematurely — a sense of wonderment, of not knowing, a vague notion, and a hope, that there just might be something beyond this life.
Being more accepting of death might be the key to living life more fully, and more gracefully. It might also be the best way to honor those we have lost.