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.