Monday, January 11, 2016

A Friend's Death

Brian Setzer did a song called "Sixty Years."  Its chorus contains the words "We only got sixty years on the planet (Repeat 3 times) and if you get any more you might wish that you hadn't."  It would seem he underestimated just how long most of us have here.  Perhaps he meant sixty good years.  But in one case at least, he was accurate enough.

Memento mori was a medieval practice, involving reflection on one's mortalityOf course, this was a common practice or discipline long before the Middle Ages.  It's easy enough to find the contemplation of death in Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius, for example, and those granted a Roman triumph were told to remember they were mortal by a slave standing behind them in their chariot, holding a crown over their heads.

The death of someone you know, particularly that of a contemporary and a friend, can inspire such contemplation as well.  The inspiration for this contemplation increases with age, naturally enough.  It's something to get used to.

I met the friend of mine who died recently in college.  We were roommates for the better part of four years.  He was odd, quiet and shy.  I also was odd, though not so quiet and not so shy.  We had many things in common in addition to our peculiarity: a fondness for alcohol, literature and music, and the more outlandish forms of wit.  He grew excessively fond of alcohol, however, and it may be that fondness together with a love of tobacco, which we also shared, which ultimately brought about his gradual dissipation and ultimately his death.  I don't know if alcoholism was eventually diagnosed in his case, but had been drunk with him on many occasions and while my drunkenness became less and less a habit his became habitual.  Tobacco I gave up many years ago; I don't think he ever stopped smoking.

Sadly, I hadn't seen him for years when I learned of his death.  For years before that, though, we were very good friends indeed and that friendship lasted long after college, continuing after I married and had children, though he never did.  He clearly wasn't up to either.  The signs of his dissolution were there even in college, when he threw away his chance of doing well by drinking and treating his courses and teachers with contempt.  But he returned and ended up graduating years after his classmates did, to his credit.  It seemed at the time he was pulling himself together.

Perhaps he was a shooting star, as a song he liked put it.  His intelligence and wit could be incandescent, his memory profound, his insight remarkable.  But he had no patience for the kind of life available to him now, and refused always to do what was needed to succeed, though I think he could have done so.  Later, I think he began to lose his hold on life and perhaps on sanity, preferring some other world he was unable to experience; that would not require work and discipline or the compromises and effort required to make money, marry have children, own property.  Medication may have contributed to the disorientation he sometimes displayed

He seemed of a type, in some sense.  The frustrated, lonely artist, misunderstood genius.  A tragic figure.  He could write very well indeed, in my not very humble opinion, when he wanted to.  I hope he continued to write, and that somewhere among what's left behind there may be some work of genius.  But there was more to him than that.  He wasn't merely a poseur.   Yet he burned out very quickly.  He became homeless for a time, I think.  I gave him money, bought him meals, but I was a professional and a father and existed in an entirely different world, and the requests for money became intolerable eventually.  I know I could have done more, but did not.  I doubt it would have made any difference if I had, but regret it nonetheless.

It seems my great regrets have their beginnings in my college years.   What is it about those years that they play such a role?  They should not, because they are gone quickly and the rest of life remains and is relentlessly different from those halcyon days.  I suppose the same could be said about youth.

A friend, according to Cicero, is like a second self.  He was a great friend for a long time, and I often think of him, and miss him, especially during my now sadly solo trips to the friendly and interesting bars and restaurants in downtown Chicago.  In this case a friend was not a second self, really, though I saw in him things I think are or at least were in me, but not to the same extent or of the same dangerous power and purity.  Ave atque vale, Catullus wrote to his brother on his death.  I wrote the same words on the death of my father, and now do so on the death of a friend.

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