“If it wasn’t strange it wouldn’t be death.” – Todd Palmer
Recent news of the death of another college classmate caused me to think about mortality in a tangible way. It’s a hobby I usually save for 2:00am after hours of wrestling with Haruki Murakami.
Death has always interested me. How can it not? It’s what we work our whole lives to achieve.
I was a deeper thinker in college and, had I come on the scene a decade earlier, might have been a Beatnik philosopher. But, as it was in the Reagan years, I had varied interests from athletics to art, from music to mayhem, from partying to politics.
One of my most remembered courses of study was Thanatopsis: The Study of Death, an upper level Philosophy class taught by a fiery Atheist in Amish country. Having earlier been subjected the Judeo-Christian version of eternity, it all became very confusing. Then it all became very clear.
But, in college, I had still not known anyone who had died.
In later years I would learn what that pain was like. My father was the first, overtaken by a disease that took him from an athletic, positive, dynamic 54-year-old to a shadow of himself, void of energy and then gone inside a few fast months. That was not something I realized was even possible. Naive? Absolutely, but I am of the opinion that death isn’t something you can learn about without experiencing.
At any rate, I thought it would be useful if not cathartic, to very briefly recount a few people who died and what they meant to me.
I suppose I am summoned to do this now as we recently received the news that another college friend had died at his own hand. Another first and and something equally difficult to fathom. More naivety.
In college I had many spheres of influence and several separate but equal networks of acquaintances who would sometimes overlap and sometimes not. I would like to believe that was more a result of my own diverseness rather than a longer than usual academic journey which resulted in meeting more people than normal.
On the edge, this cat was an introvert of the highest order who would have been wise to avoid marijuana and a liberal arts education. His mind expanded at the same pace as his anti-social behavior. One spring, my roommates and I set up a boxing ring in front of our apartment. We bought some gloves and we’d go a few rounds in the afternoon. This kid came over one day and wanted to get in the ring. We all knew he was secretly driven and unpredictable. I had him by a foot and twenty pounds so I easily won the round but he would not stop. The bell rang after a minute but he didn’t care about the bell – he’d been embarrassed and bells were of no concern. He kept coming and coming no matter how many times I knocked him down or connected with his nose. Years later we wound up living in the town he’d grown up in and moved back to. Somehow he found out and showed up at our house with blood dripping from his wrists after a suicide attempt. I talked to him for several hours and when he left, I was confident I had made a difference. Several months later we received news that he had been successful in his latest attempt to escape.
We were both a dangerous combination of wild and creative so we hit it off right away. We lived on the same dormitory floor in our freshman year and both liked exploring art and music. Together we seemed more like background players from The Outsiders than college students. We had a lot of adventures, lived together off an on for years and he taught me how much people can change. In fact, we both managed to wrestle the wild and hone the creative into something with purpose but he was on another level. Friends to the end, I loved him like a brother and wonder each and every day what greatness he might have ascended to.
The First Friend
Directly across the hall from me at the start of my college career lived the first friend I ever made in college. This guy had forgone starting college for one reason or another and was 21 when I was 17. Enamored by the fact that he could summon alcohol at will and play the guitar on par with Eddie Van Halen, I suppose I overlooked behavior that is most odd in retrospect. He used to lift a big old typewriter to work out and would drop to his back whenever he had to pass gas and hold a lighter to his jeans for an unusual pyrotechnic display. That weirdness aside, I hardly underrate his guitar prowess as it is all he did when he was awake. One year the band Yes played at our college touring behind a new album. In the weeks prior, this friend worked to learn the entire record note for note. I vividly remember him telling me that I would change and become more mature but I don’t ever recall feeling that happen. We lost touch well before college even ended.
The first friend to go was an expert at enjoying himself. He was from a rough part of the Philadelphia suburbs and drove around in an old luxury sedan, like a long Lincoln or Cadillac, baby blue with a white interior… slouched down in complete comfort with a bag in his pocket and a beer at his side. I associate that car with him but other things too… like how he dressed, always like he was at the beach. In fact, he acted like he was always at the beach. We had many great times together just playing cards for hours and hours. He was a magnet for trouble but it seldom fazed him and he’d just slide on into the next incident. An industrial arts major, he asked me to edit a term paper for him once. The paper’s subject was Ceramic Materials and the title on his paper was Cermic Materals. It went downhill from there. He did eventually die from drug use in his late thirties but I will always remember him as a kind of black Big Lebowski.
These are people who died.