It’s been almost two months since my friend Tommy fell to the floor at his friend’s house in Milton, Delaware and suffered a fatal heart attack. What began as a typical evening of socializing among these transplanted Delawareans turned deadly in a split second. Hardly the picture of health- Tommy was overweight, a smoker; nevertheless, no one expected death to strike so suddenly and violently. At age 63, Tommy was just a year older than me, making him my first contemporary to pass. And leaving me unsettled in ways I am trying to comprehend.
Tommy was my friend because his wife, Janet, is one of my closest friends. We were part of a decades-long constellation of ten that began for some of us in elementary school, others in high school, and one in college, though we didn’t see each other as often as I would have liked, particularly when our children were young. We did, however, share the important familial, cultural, and religious milestones. We created an enduring tradition of Christmas in Connecticut, where four Long Island families traversed highways and bridges to Derrel and Matt’s house in Wilton, fancying ourselves as players in a Norman Rockwell New England Christmas. There, we gave gifts in various incarnations, but always beginning with the youngest, Emma, opening first, followed by reciting her portion of The Polar Express.
I can see Tommy now, holding court in the kitchen with a green bottle of Heineken in his hand, boisterous, opinionated. As quickly as he was to rile the kids up, he was equally able to remain calm when too many hijinks once resulted in a trip to the Emergency Room for stitches. Tommy was a major player in the long history of this clan created not by blood or legality, but by love and history.
Tommy is not my first friend to die. My high school friend Nina died, but it had been many years since I had seen her, so her passing did not affect my life the same way Tommy’s passing has. Janet’s brother died tragically forty years ago, and my sadness then was based more on a crush than on the loss of a meaningful friendship, and I focused my attention on consoling Janet. When people die, even those I love, like my brother, I tend to transmute my grief into caretaking for those I feel need it more.
I’m sure that my tendency to do this is at least in part an attempt to deflect my own feelings, and I’m wondering why these emotions scare me, the therapist, into avoidance. Although I find myself focused on a wife’s grief that I cannot comprehend, and which terrifies me, I find myself grieving for Tommy in a particular way. I think in part it has to do with what Tommy took with him when he died: one of my integral connections to the past, as well as a presence I had counted on in the future. As Author Anna Quindlen wrote in her book, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, “The thing about old friends is not that they love you but that they know you.”
Tommy knew me, maybe not as well as Janet did, but more so than even my own siblings. Cancer snuffed the life out of my fourteen-year-old sister when I was three, and I have but a few fleeting memories like polaroid snapshots etched into my hippocampus. When my brother, nineteen years my senior, died at forty-nine, I grieved more for what I would never experience than for what I lost.
I never had the opportunity to hang out with my siblings and cause mischief, like Tommy strategically placing “dead soldiers”-empty brown bottles of Budweiser- along the side shelf of the midtown tunnel as we drove in traffic to my interview at NYU. If not the best judgment, it was the best of times.
Now, opportunities to behave the way one does only with a full bevy of best friends in tow, have been irreversibly altered. Tommy, the skilled craftsman who worked on most of our houses, who created beautiful gifts with his hands, has died. The man who could suck me into a political argument regardless of my resolve not to, is gone. The man who drove his wife forty-five minutes to my home late at night, in the debilitating days after my mother’s death, is no longer with us- and I find myself feeling unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with the loss. I think my evasiveness is because when someone your age suffers a massive heart attack and dies without warning, it gives pause, starting with the most primal: confronting your own mortality on a new and disturbing level. It will be me some day. Worse, it could be any day. A loss like this also begs me to consider, if I lose my husband abruptly, will I be able to even emerge from the covers much less face the world with as much grace and courage as Janet? Too, it forces me to ask, when are my husband and I going to have THE talk? -the one that Janet and Tommy had which allowed her to know his precise wishes after death. The talk my husband deftly avoids with the most nuanced facial expression.
This loss also makes me contemplate, If I meticulously care for my body, will that ward off the Grim Reaper a bit longer, or is the day of our departure preordained, regardless of cholesterol levels or how many miles we log on the elliptical?
Religious beliefs about heaven and eternal life, ingrained in me since childhood, suddenly seem less unwavering. In the afterlife, will God indeed “wipe every tear from their eyes?” (Rev. 21:4) Loss invites these tucked away questions to rear their ugly heads.
Loss also begets loss, and I am thinking about cumulative losses I’ve already experienced, and the inevitable losses yet to come. There are two people still alive who have known me forever, my sister and my aunt. When the last person alive to call me Chickie has gone, I fear that Chickie will cease to exist, and that part of my identity will die along with them.
The absence of primary familial players has been blessedly filled with the universe’s gift of friends like Tommy. Our chosen families, we call them.
People who know me well, with whom I have history, have given meaning to my life in ways that acquaintances cannot. What I am saying is, there is one less person in my orbit and this has left me seeking equilibrium, and asking, what are we without the Tommys in our life? This is the question left for me and my tribe to answer. And I know that I am not alone in my feelings. As Anna Quindlen also writes, with each subsequent loss we lose “a chunk of ourselves.” This is the space I am currently occupying.
Countless others have written volumes about death and loss and grief far more eloquently than I, and yet the questions remain. How do we get past the grief: mine, ours, Janet’s?
I tell myself what I tell my suffering patients: There is no way around grief, only through it. Navigating this level of loss means something different to every person experiencing it. For me, I will begin by remembering Tommy, his antics, and his goodness, and I will say his name. I will remind myself and Janet that grief is not linear, nor is it predictable. It is indiscriminate in its assaults. People in mourning don’t want to hear “death is a part of life” and “this too shall pass.” But as my friend Michael said, “We must learn to say this too belongs, before we begin to focus on it passing. It shall in fact pass, but only after we have allowed it to stay.” Or as author Liz Newman says, “…For such a love, grief is the price of admission…”
Janet is paying that price, and to a lesser degree, we all are. It’s what we must do, now that our friend has died.