Elegy for a Distant Friend

When John Donne said, and continues to say through the ages, that no man is an island, everyone nods. But no one really listens. We hear the notes and recognize each one, but it is hard to discern the music he arranged them into.

Is there any such thing as a distant friend? Does it matter? One of mine died last night. After many courageous swings at cancer with the broadswords of medicine and faith, the adversary waited for his chance and, as so often happens, got a blade up into the weakness he willfully endured so he could get better, for his wife, for his kids. Not this time.

He played music at our church, and had kids around the same age as mine. We had had pleasant chats in the narthex after Mass, had crossed paths at school functions. Our wives had that kids-in-the-same-school bond; mine took her turns making dinner for the family when they needed it and even sat with the man in the past few weeks. A times, his medication fogged him so deeply that it was unsafe to leave him alone, and the wife had errands to run and needed a moment away. But we didn’t socialize, and I know few details about his life — indeed, most of what I know, I discovered because of his impending death.

And still — despite that alleged distance, there is the leaden feeling, always admittedly tied to one’s own reservations about mortality. My wife is understandably upset; my son has been seen gazing out of windows, thinking. I find myself thinking about every bite of food, every appealing vista of blue sky and clouds, and then imagining their absence — not dark versus light, but closer to that exist-not exist concept physicists try to describe as the difference between one second before the Big Bang and one second after. There. Not there. Is. Not.

Faith — the departed man’s, and mine, although they may not match up tendril for tendril — relieves the starkness of that dichotomy. He trusted, as do I, that although we may not completely understand what comes after what we know, God has it covered.

Meanwhile, we remain here, watching in a gently stunned silence as people fade away or pop right out of our lives. We cannot, in fairness, be blamed for being impervious to Donne’s blunt truth about life and its end. To be front-burner conscious of that fact in every moment is crushingly difficult, the province of the monk, the ascetic, the person with the rare moral strength to make use of that terrible knowledge.

The rest of us must make our daily ways in the world. Cancer (which has lately felled, or stands ready to fell, more people near me than I am comfortable with) may get us to realize, in episodes, that typical work-play-get-go stress is foolish. But most of the time it is our daily currency. When someone dies, even someone on our perimeter, we may try to dispense with the guilt and shame of mistaking the mundane for the crucial the way we would brush bugs off a picnic table with our hands — only to find that we get a hand full of splinters in the process. All we can do is drop down on the bench, pick them out as best we can, and think. And feel.

This man’s death diminished me. May I — may we all — find lessons in our reaction to it that will make us good friends and mentors to his wife, children, and friends. Distant or not. — Adam Barr


Copyright 2012 Adam Barr

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