The thing about death is we always think it’s not going to happen, when in fact it happens to everyone. It really will happen to everyone, you know. Do you know anyone who’s 6,000 years old? I mean, mornings after I eat many potato chips, I look 6,000 years old, but that’s beside the point.
A friend died suddenly this weekend. He was Facebooking that morning, and then he was dead. I don’t know what happened and I don’t know why everyone’s first question is, “What happened?” other than I guess we want to hear that it was something that would never happen to us. Oh, he was in the middle of a jousting match. He had a severe allergy to Pledge. Mrs. Butterworth came to life and strangled him in her own sweet time.
The thing is, we’re all going to die, and so is everyone we love. But we all go around thinking it won’t happen, even if we’re the kind of people who go around obsessing about it happening the way I do.
I met Greg at a party in 1987. I don’t know how we got to talking but it turned out he owned a marketing agency, which is what we called them back then, and needed a part-time writer.
I remember everything I was wearing that night: Black velvet capris pants with pointy black velvet shoes, and a ridiculous mauve paisley jacket. Basically, he hired Prince, is what he did.
Greg invited me to his office, read my cumbersome dark-blue, three-ring notebook with my newspaper clippings and press releases (I still have it), and gave me little writing assignments, which I’d do at home. I’d get all sweaty and tense the way I still do when I work. I wanted so much to please him. Because we were both young and ridiculous, we’d also run into each other in my hometown’s bars. I recall lots of drunken late-night talks at parties, over loud music that would, at this point, drive me berserk. “Can we turn Orchestral Manoeuvers in the Dark DOWN, please?”
I can’t recall how I stopped doing that writing for him, but I do recall a year or so later, his business folded. He was very upset about it, and he’d told me he wanted to plant a tree in honor of this business. It had to do with the name of his business. You’re going to have to trust me that it was a lovely idea. Anyway, one drunken night I told him I’d like to go with him to plant that tree when he was ready.
And then? He called me one Sunday to go plant the tree. I was writing a paper for school and couldn’t go.
And now he’s dead.
I mean, we had 30 more years of friendship after that. He met a great woman, Ann, whom I adore, and they bought an 1800s-era house and refurbished it together. I even moved into a little apartment in said house for a few months in the early ’90s. That place had a living room with giant windows, a kitchen in a hallway that I never used for anything but making coffee, and a bedroom with a little bathroom off of it. I remember them complaining that they could hear all the loud sex I was having in my apartment.
But still, even though all those years have passed and we went to each other’s weddings and we had laughs about stupid old jokes and all that stuff, what I’m stuck with is the guilt that I didn’t help him plant that tree in 1988.
I always think of all the shitty things I did when people die.
My friend Melanie, who killed herself, IM’d me in the months before, asking if I knew if our old workplace was hiring. It had closed years ago and I knew she knew that. What I didn’t know was she had a problem with prescription drugs and wasn’t thinking clearly. I still have our IM where I sort of dismiss her. “That place closed years ago–you know that. Move here! It’s affordable!”
She never wrote back. And we never talked again.
I think of the flippant way I said goodnight to my grandfather, who would die hours later.
I think of crappy things I did to my grandmother, who was my favorite person.
I remember my Uncle Jim waxing on about some horror film he liked. “Have you seen it?” he asked me. And I scoffed and said, “No.” I remember his downcast eyes after I said it, like I’d shamed him for liking a kind of movie I didn’t.
Stuff like that haunts me now. The stupid dismissive or downright inconsiderate shit I did to people, assuming I had forever to make it up to them. Assuming they wouldn’t die.
I’m not telling you all this because I have some sort of wisdom to wrap it all up. I’m telling you this because I feel horrific that I can’t call my Uncle Jim and say, “Hey, what was that movie, again? I’m gonna check it out.” I can’t go visit my friend Greg next time I’m in Saginaw. I just feel guilty and sad and I hate death, basically.
I suppose the lesson is to not be an asshole, but I never meant to be one any of those times, so how will I know not to be one in the future?