The last time I saw my friend G before his death, he had called me for computer help. “Yahoo has changed everything and I can’t find a particular folder,” he snapped. “Dammit, I know it’s there but I can’t find it.” I told him I’d be over shortly but before I walked over to his house, I sat for more than a while at the coffee shop considering his situation. I will admit to being in no hurry to go look into the face of death ravaging my old friend.
Nine months ago, just after turning 57, he had received the news of his Stage IV lung cancer. His treatments were now over and he was living at home, attended by several caretakers, staving off pain as best he could. The woman who knew him best said he had good and bad days. I had known G for four decades. Two days separate our birthdays. Quite different in personality – I always a bit shy, sensitive to craziness, whereas G was a people-lover, always chatting up strangers at coffee shops and maintaining many complex friendships and relationships about which I knew very little. Our vices and metaphysical interests were similar and kept us running into one another, and we both liked to read, to drink and blather on about philosophy and fancy word-flights related to comparative religion and “non-ordinary” states of consciousness.
We were demographic doubles: each left a sort of rural home area, and not unlike a bunch of other kids of similar age, we eventually slipped into the rather impoverished Southside of our state’s largest (yet not quite saddest) city. I just counted up ten different places I lived within three years’ time, and G probably moved more often than that. I remember many of his apartments and houses; paintings and prints he owned went from place to place. We freely borrowed books from one another–an open invitation existed always.
Way back in that almost unimaginable and barely still rememberable time, the first half of the Seventies, I fancied an astonishingly horny mother of three, and it may have been he who (because of her) first called me a kept boy. I can imagine it: L drops me off in her Volvo and squeaks her wheels out of the underground parking deck, I walk in and order a patty melt with coffee, sit down next to G.
“So,” he would snicker, tapping that Kool into the ashtray, smirking slimly toward someone nearby or perhaps at our table. “Neil’s become a kept boy.” Grinning so I’ll know he’s joking. Pish, I say. Posh.
I distinctly recall him coming into the all-night coffee shop we all hung around in at the time; he had just driven back from California. He was dressed well, dark lank-straight hair as long as I have ever seen it (barely touching his fancy multicolored shirt collar), and he did not take off the pale-colored sunglasses the whole time we talked, which was mostly Adventures in Wild Debauchery Out West. I eventually got to know him better because we were often in the coffee shop at the same time and fell into conversation. Our interests coincided more than in later years, when he began to become more interested in stock-market matters and investments than, say, the Emerald Tablets of Trismegistus, G.I. Gurdjieff, or yoga’s debt to shamanism. But then again, in later years, as I grew my company 401k, I found it helpful to have his advice on crucial fiduciary matters.
G was outgoing in a way I could only aspire to be, always smilingly happy to see anyone who came his way, whether he knew them personally or not. Unless he was distracted by something, he gave you his full attention when you were in front of him. I doubt he had any enemies. He knew a great number of people at all times of his life, I think, and it wasn’t only because he dealt pot.
By this I only mean he became known as someone to whom we pot-smokers could always turn to in times of great aridity – he would have something for sale. If he didn’t he’d share with you what he had. There were times when he’d give me part of a quarter-pound, with the understanding that I would bring back what I could not sell. Thus the poor (or under-employed) could enjoy quality marijuana.
[I recently re-told the story of the first Thai stick that came into my possession. G, doubtlessly one of the first in town to acquire salable quantities of it, gave me a price that seemed just outrageous, egregious, irresponsible and impossible. I was stunned. Was my old friend trying to rip me off? What marijuana could be that good? “Listen. This is different stuff. This—” holding it up for me to sniff—”what does that smell like?” It smelled of Christmas, like a piece of a spruce tree cut open. After I tried a bit of it, I understood the price differential. Later that day I looked in the mirror of my apartment as I walked in the door, and there was Lao Tzu, plain as any day in ancient China, with his Ho Chi Minh string beard and everything, right where I myself should be in the mirror. The image sifted away as I turned on a light, but I’ve never forgotten it. Thanks, G.]
Through the decades, I always saw him from time to time but never spent a great deal of time together apart from the week we both spent as day-laborers, helping a guy install bank vaults across the southern part of the state, back in 1976 or so. We never got out of touch completely. “Give me your number.” “Where you living now?”
One story, among many that could be told: in 1984, I visited a house he and his wife were renting, far out of his usual urban haunts in the woods beyond suburbia. He said, “You like Dylan, right?” I demurred, saying I’d quit listening so much to Bob since he went all Jesus-freaky. G, excitedly: “You gotta listen to this album. Guy from Dire Straits on guitar. You gotta listen to Infidels.” Sitting me down and beginning to roll joints, he made me listen until I was almost unable to find my way back into the city. (A great, and mostly unrepeatable album. We speculated on who Dylan was talking about in “Man of Peace.” I can’t think of many people with whom I could have had that conversation.)
He worked for years and years, toward the end, at our local university’s computer department, night shift (as I myself worked nights and often wound up meeting him at crazy hours to do a deal, have a beer, discuss war and finance), but they let him go just one year before he would have earned retirement pay. Never one to just say the hell with it, he sought out any kind of work he could find at the university – to fill up that gap of time, even with a great drop in pay, it would be so worth it – and the job with the special monkeys, feeding them and cleaning their stalls, became his way out.
“They’re pretty smart,” he would say, and then sheepishly admit that one Capuchin mother had torn through his protective glove. “I wear two pairs of gloves now.”
If he felt resentment at his employer – well, he had to. “They fire you and then your only option is to work with primate excrement for one year, like something in a fairy tale that scientists tell their kids each night or something – ”
Besides that, the monkeys were dangerous. “They told us that one of the preconditions of working there was this, that if certain of the monkeys bit us or scratched us, we might have to spend some time in quarantine.”
I was astounded. “So you could be bitten by one of your monkeys, get quarantined and be living in an undisclosed fucking location somewhere for weeks while they.”
G nodded, a thin half-smile on his face, and smoked his Kool.
He pushed on, finished up the year of work with the monkeys, all the while cultivating friendships, travelling, living life as he wished, ignoring a bad pain in his shoulder-blade for months and months until, said a friend, he could ignore it no more. They were about right when they gave him 6 months to a year, depending on how the treatments went. I saw him shortly after this and he looked exactly as I would probably have looked in that situation: stunned, not quite able to process it. I personally could not stand to watch and drove off – I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone, is what I thought. But it was probably much different for G. Doubtless he went home and called his parents or other relatives, to give them the dour news. He started making preparations for whatever came next. Did he take one last trip to Mexico at this point, or had he already said his goodbyes to the country he loved so much?
Treatments and then in a few months, hospice – this is what came next. Everyone of a certain age is sure to have seen the ravages of death-bringing illnesses, and I did not have to follow G around to know what was happening with him. It seemed that I rarely saw him anywhere, and I will admit that I often pushed my mind away from the thought of visiting him. Friends who had seen him often told me of his increasingly weakened state. “But his mind’s still sharp.”
I went on over and knocked on his door.
“Here,” he said, turning on his laptop, “come on in, sit down right here.”
“How are you doing?” I put an arm across his back, about to give him a hug.
“Don’t touch me, it hurts.” Startled, I pull back and now notice he has special clothes that seem to have been pinned together in a peculiar way. He doesn’t seem to be able to raise his chin from his chest but still manages to peer at the laptop screen as it warms up. One of his relatives, a quiet and demure lady, sits watching TV.
I find his lost folder. “Oh!” he exclaims. “Pardon me. This is my sister,” he says, introducing me. Then he got into the Yahoo folder and did the things he meant to do – something involving bills.
“He gets tired out really quick,” says his sister.
As if on cue, G rises and moves slowly back to a recliner, arranges himself there.
“Let me rest a little bit.”
“You sold those bank stocks yet?”
“No, I was going to ask you about that – ”
It seemed awfully hot but it was not really that hot inside the house that day. Of a sudden, it seemed as though he was gone (dark eyes closed, body limp and thin and stretched out). His sister seemed about to start a conversation with me, but upon hearing the word leaving, her brother roused himself: “You leaving, man?” “Ah, yeah…” “Wait a minute…” “What?” “Wait a minute.”
Whereupon my old friend began to extricate himself from the recliner-bed. “C’mon,” he said—a C’mon I’d heard hundreds of times—and began to amble, apparently in some pain, toward his kitchen.
His sister demurred: “Now you know what the doctors said about walking around so much . . .” And to me: “He’s got this morphine drip thing attached and—”
Interrupting her, G said: “I know, I know. Just a minute. Hang on. Reach up there in that cabinet,” whispers this ill man, “and get a baggie.” He maneuvered around to his closet cupboard and pulled out a grocery sack, from which he scooped a couple of handfuls of dry marijuana leaves. Quietly assuring him that I didn’t need this, he went on and filled the baggie up. I almost wept, just for a few short seconds . . .
His sister called his name again. He whispered a bit too loudly, “Don’t worry about her, she comes from north Alabama.” He almost giggled, but not quite. Rolling up the baggie and handing it to me, he whispered: “No buds but th’ seeds came from Amsterdam. Need to get rid of it all anyway.”
I said my goodbyes to him from just off his front porch, where he had arranged a chair so he could get a look at the parking lot of the coffee shop across the street, where a few sweaty people were moving about. “Is that Rich’s car? tell him to come see me, if that’s his car.” I considered staying, but the sister looked at me as if to say, Leave, so I can get him back inside. Please.
“Call me any time you need any help,” I assured him, escaping into my car. From nowhere he produced a floppy straw Mexican-style hat and was using it to shade his eyes as he sat down on his front porch. He still could not raise his head.
“Come back when you can stay longer.”
We waved, and I saw his sister appear in the doorway.
It was the last time I saw him alive, though I must say I’ve felt the touch of the memory of the dude’s spirit (was that memory of the touch or touch of the memory) many times since. It was not pleasant to attend his funeral, since I have no doubt he would not have wanted this preacher to try to save souls during his memorial service. I made a mental note (reddening the mental font and highlighting it): No preachers at any service associated with me after I have “transitioned.” (Lately, I read obits to find new words for dying, like “Sam shook his last Etch-a-Sketch Saturday morning at Rosedale University Hospital.” Please. “Barbara started singing with the angels last Friday evening.” Uh huh. Neil is starting a worm farm. I shrugged it off, however, and it was refreshing to see some of his friends making superb music in his honor, and to flip through a photo book his mother had made for the occasion.
Our lives contain scant dignity anyway; can’t we keep a bit for our deaths?
G’s life and death has marked me, because our lives spun their wheels and ruts in remarkably similar ways. I think about death differently because of him. I often miss him; while unable to believe that we shall get to see our predeceased loved ones at some later Cosmic Date, I would neither be surprised to see him in this trans-incarnated state nor would I lack for a greeting.
So: how good is the reefer in the Afterlife?
(Author’s addendum: I don’t need to remind the reader that this little reminiscence probably says a lot more about me and my own handling of mortality than it does about my old friend, who appeared to face non-being with hearty stoicism. Such retrospectives are created for the personal consolation of those of us left with the person’s absence, who keep somewhat vivid the memory of the absent person until we too are gone.)
© 2012, 2017 Thomas N Dennis