Lunch Break


I had lunch with two old friends the other day. They are old friends in every sense. We go back 50 years. But this day was different.

One is a man of enormous energy and optimism, not to mention resilience: a survivor of life-threatening illnesses. I’ll call him “Grande.” The other is steadfast and quietly clever, but a block of granite underneath. You want “Top Hat” beside you in the trenches.

All that sounds too serious, I think. We mostly have fun, talk about everything and nothing. Conversation is easy. So this was a lunch like dozens or hundreds we’ve had before, until the topic turned to an acquaintance, someone we know pretty well, though he is younger. Another good fellow and, unlike ourselves, a great athlete.

At our age conversation easily leads to demise and Death — little d and Big D — those twin comedians. Seniors all suffer from daily aches and pains: your knees, your back, arthritis, balky shoulders, whatever. The conversation darkened.

Top Hat had seen the other buddy, Achilles, and was distressed over his appearance. “He didn’t look well. He isn’t the same old godlike, invulnerable Achilles.” Did the lights in the diner dim just then? Who turned on the air-conditioner? D entered the restaurant. D as in Death.

Achilles’ name brought the conversation too close to home. Meanwhile D circled our table as we ate. I watched the lettuce in my salad discolor.

Past a certain age, most people wait for a late night phone call about their parents. The three lunch-comrades lost them quite a while back. In the case of my dad I got the call early one morning 15 years ago from my brother Ed. Dad had suffered a hemorrhagic stroke and lasted only a few more days. I visited mom on a Sunday morning about nine months later, part of my regular routine, only to find her unconscious. She, too, made a “clean getaway,” as my friend Dan likes to call a speedy and painless death.

I still drive a 16-year old car my father rode in a few months before he kicked the bucket. I think about that sometimes when I look at the empty passenger seat.

The conversation continued. We talked about what our dating experience in high school might have been like if we’d been more mature and what a preposterous thought that was. Our kids’ well-being entered the discussion along with news of my new grandchild. One of the guys explained the reason for the brace on his hand. The other reported some exciting travel plans. Retirement issues came up. Politics, playoff baseball, and robotic automation were mentioned. We are all worried about what the world holds for our offspring. Grande suggested a get-together with other high school buddies. He plans to give a call to another chum whom we’d not seen in a while  — to say hello for all of us.

My mind drifted just a little. I started to think about how special this matter-of-fact lunch was. How much I love these two men. I was reminded how unimportant are the imperfections in each of us — even as much as we sometimes make of them. And I thought how short will be the time (however many years it might be) before one of us will be absent. Thank goodness we are now all in good health for our age.

I remembered, too, a videotaped oral history I did with my dad in his mid-70s. I asked him what he’d figured out about life. Milt Stein paused for a few seconds and then said, “I’ve learned to appreciate some things.” Not the most philosophical of people, in that moment he became the wisest man on earth.

My reverie passed and I noticed Death moving toward the door. As D pulled the handle, he turned and caught my eye. Did he wink? What a friendly guy!

Then he left us — for now. Other appointments to take care of first, I imagine.

Here are words of Shakespeare’s Prospero at the close of The Tempest. He is speaking about the players in the play, but also about all of us:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The top photo is called Sunset at Land’s End in San Francisco, by Brocken Inaglory. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

14 thoughts on “Lunch Break

  1. Dr. Stein, your post is beauty in its simplicity. Such moments in our lives with old friends are to be treasured. When we pass our sixties, Mr. D comes knocking with more frequency. We wonder who’ll be next.

    I learned yesterday that my dear friends and neighbors – a couple and their six-year-old daughter (the grand-daughter I may never have) – are leaving in a few days to move closer to the wife’s family living out-of-state. The husband is wasting away with lung cancer. Mr. D lurks nearby. My heart weeps…helpless.

    “Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,” How happy I am for the wonderful moments we spent together before they dissolved!


    • Thank you, Rosaliene. I am sorry for the loss of your friends and their impending loss. The philosophers of antiquity believed one had to think about death in order to appreciate the “wonderful moments.” Interestingly, I’ve encountered therapists who flee the thought.


  2. Sounds scarily like my luncheons of late with old friends and family members. It’s sort of like my sibling emails: at first 5, then 4, and now 3. One day, one of the three of us will get up and have no sibling left to write. Very sobering! Sieze the day!


  3. What a lovely, lovely, poignant post. I am so glad you were able to have and enjoy both this recent reunion, and so many years of friendship. I also very glad that you are all in good health right now! And I very much hope you remain so, for quite some time to come……
    Thank you for the very very important lesson about imperfections – one I struggle with often, particularly in relation to those closest to me.
    In that slightly bizarre way we have of sometimes posting along similar lines at similar times (though my husband would say there is nothing statistically bizarre about coincidences), were it not for the fact that this is Remembrance Sunday, I would also have posted about D – who has been much on my mind recently. As well as the loss of a long-standing friendship, not to D, but perhaps to perceptions of those imperfections (on both) sides that you spoke about in your post.
    How do you deal with him, and the fact he gets ever nearer? Though I wish so frequently for death, if I sit down and really think about it, the thought of my own non-existence terrifies me. How do you deal with the ‘countdown’, however long or short you believe it is? By not thinking about it? Somehow, by accepting it? Any wisdom you have to share, would be greatly appreciated…..
    Many thanks again for a moving and thought-provoking post…


    • Your comments are often more thought provoking than my posts! 😉 As to question of how one approaches D, I think I was, from an early age, more than usually attentive to his shadowy presence. My father had a heart attack when I was almost 12. He lived to 88+, but I always “knew” thereafter that our time is short. Thus, the fact that I’m closer to the end than I was on that autumn day has no shock value. I agree, at least in the abstract, with some of the philosophers of antiquity about not letting mortality concerns get in the way of making the most of life — indeed, of motivating one to live life honorably and well today. I find that I’m more concerned about becoming debilitated — things like strokes — than death itself; and about not making myself a burden on anyone or doing harm to my children by either the way I live or the way I die. There is more to say, but that’s a start.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. All I can say is you nailed it. And I guess the fact that my eyes are wet only confirms that. I have always had a fascination with Mr, Death but his appearance is so much more real now. I don’t know what to do about that so I just let him go in and out. I’ve thought about making friends with him but I’m really not sure how I would do that. I think I might start by trying to paint him.


  5. D is on my mind every day. Since my parents died, and I have become the “oldest generation”, I think about it so very often. My 2 best friends and I still have those long 3 hour lunch conversations and can joke about D, and our lives and our kids, and a multitude of other subjects, but we are all joined in that sisterhood of “orphans” . I too fear a stroke (my Mom died of a sudden one 8 years ago), being a burden, not being able to do things and go places and depending on others for care and travel needs. And just sometimes when I’m really down I wonder would anyone really miss me,as much as I do my parents. But for now I will keep volunteering, making people laugh, writing and do the things that make me happy because in one breath it could be over…forever.


    • Thank you, Judy. In a letter to his father, Mozart admitted that he thought about death every day. Marcus Aurelius believed it a virtue to do so — that it put one in the right frame of mind to make the most of life. The music of Gustav Mahler is suffused with death, questions about existence, and the struggle to triumph. Ernest Becker wrote “The Denial of Death,” perhaps the most important nonfiction book of the 20th century and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Keep laughing. Re: being remembered, there was a Chicago Symphony violinist who died many years (Royal Johnson) who was such a funny guy that people who never met him keep the stories about him alive. Sounds like you would be remembered for a while. That’s about the best most of us can do.


      • An interesting aside – you referenced Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death” – there was a book that came out last summer entitled “The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life”. I found it to be an engaging read in which the three researchers (Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski) who authored provide evidence for Becker’s theories. It was an enjoyable read (more so than Becker was for me!). Take a look if you haven’t seen it yet.


      • Thanks, JT. I haven’t seen the book, but I know the names from “Terror Management Theory.” As I gather you know, it was Becker’s book that led to the creation of this line of research. That is what I call having a posterity! Becker has been long dead, but the work on his ideas lives on.


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