Full Circle: To Live and Let Die
Some thoughts on the death of a friend

A woman I never knew died today. She had bright eyes and a smiling face, a loving husband and beautiful children. She was 58, and she had everything to live for.

Her name was Sherri and I never really met her. She was a Facebook friend, one of those people you have something, anything, in common with. In this case, we grew up in the same neighborhood in Northeast Philly. From time to time, she would post things on my news feed. A kind comment about a column I wrote. A word or two about one of my grandkids.

I knew, from her news feed, that she liked to laugh and she liked to Zumba. But today, the only items on her news feed are messages about her sudden death and plans for her funeral. I feel so bad because I never got to say goodbye. Or hello.

I have always had a strange relationship with death. Shortly after I turned 11, I made the mistake of answering the phone when no one was home. It was a woman from the nursing home where my grandfather had lived his last few months. When I told her my parents weren’t home, she decided I was good enough, and she told me that my grandfather had died. I sat there and cried for an hour while I looked out our front window, waiting for my parents to pull up. I remember thinking that, if they had been home, if a child hadn’t answered the phone, maybe my grandfather would still be alive.

Shortly after I turned 30, my father got colon cancer. They rushed him into surgery. When it was over, the doctor came out to talk to me. “We tried our best,” he said, “but we couldn’t get it all.” One of the most feared phrases in the English language. We couldn’t get it all.

I spent the next two months in my father’s hospital room, morning, noon and night. Day by day, I watched him die. In the beginning, I tried to talk about things. I would tell him how the Phillies had done the night before. He would just shake his head. Somehow, baseball, one of the ties that bound us, didn’t seem so important anymore.

A few years later, I would pay regular visits to my mother, who now was in a nursing home suffering from the same diseases that had killed her father. Most days, she didn’t even know I was there. But, on her clear days, on days when her mind worked fine, she would mumble to me, she would ask me to bring her pizza. My mother loved pizza, but it was on the list of things she wasn’t supposed to eat. So, I brought her pizza.

When my sister found out about this, she yelled at me. “She can’t eat pizza,” she said. “You know she’s diabetic. Pizza could kill her.” No, I thought, loneliness could kill her.Pizza could make her smile.

A short time back, I went to my 50th high school reunion in Philly. I went to see some childhood friends, friends I hadn’t seen in 50 years. But Marci, the girl I did the yearbook with, had died. Cancer. So had Ivan, the guy who met me one night at the football stadium with stolen bags of lime and helped me write “Class of ’63” on the side of the hill. And Paula, a girl who sat at our table in the lunchroom, had succumbed to gunshot wounds inflicted by a jealous son-in-law.

These were the friends I grew up with. And now my friends were dying. Even the friends I didn’t know. It makes me sad. And it makes me feel lucky. Lucky that I got up this morning. Lucky that I have a loving family. Lucky that strangers tell me how something I wrote made them smile.

Life is so complicated. And life is so simple. So, goodbye Sherri from Facebook. It was nice knowing you. Even if I didn’t.

January 2015
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