“I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello” –The Beatles
I took a week off and lost a friend.
When I last talked with Steve, he was home in bed, waiting for an acquaintance to pick up the remainder of Rousey’s things. Rousey has been Steve’s dog and boon companion. Arranging for a good home for Rousey was Steve’s paramount reason for staying alive. With that task completed, I knew that only a few pages remained in his book of life.
Linda and I had worked almost continuously at our younger son’s restaurant leading up to my last visit with Steve. I told him of our plans to leave shortly for the Adirondacks with our older son’s family. We talked about the adventures we had shared in the ADK’s: kayaking across Racquette Lake to the Marion River, where a pocket of mica sand turned the water gold in our paddle wake. Or the time we drifted down the middle branch of the Moose River, watching a bear swim across to a farther shore. Steve and I hiked Bald Mountain with his Irish setter mix Beckett and enjoyed quiet twilights listening to loons with another of his canine companions (Jonesy — my favorite).
We met while trying to arrange funding for various rail trail projects. Eventually, this work led to the establishment of a county-wide advisory committee on rail trail development: Steve and I were each in turn designated as chair for that group, so our collaboration continued. Primarily, Steve was an artist who worked in ceramics and egg tempera painting. He taught me how to incorporate graphite and iron oxide into my wood finishes. His day jobs included gigs as artist-in-residence at Mohonk Mountain House and the Williams Proctor Munson Art Institute– as well as a stint as curator of the local Trolley Museum. He was an author and an amateur kayak builder; he established a political party (Red Dog Party – named after Beckett) and ran for mayor. He did large scale fabric art installations on local bridges. Steve was a contradiction in terms: a free spirit with an engineer’s discipline.
While we were on vacation, I called twice, but my calls went directly to voicemail (“This is Steve and Rousey…”). Upon returning home, I went to Steve’s loft and found a suitcase on the curb and the doors open. The suitcase belonged to the Hospice worker; Shelley and Mitch (sister and brother-in-law) were inside talking with two of Steve’s friends. Shelley motioned me aside and said I should say a final farewell: Steve was not conscious and had barely made it through the night. I looked at my friend and saw the ravages of cancer – I bid him an easy passage. He died later that day.
Now, in the days leading up to Steve’s rapid decline, I noticed a new behavior – a tendency to distance himself from mutual friends. He would speak very dispassionately about a person – almost dismissively – as if delivering a bored final assessment. This was very much out of character for a guy who was engaged and loyal to a fault. Kubler-Ross has named this pattern of behavior ‘decathexis’. The term derives from a Freudian view of withdrawing libidinous attachment to an object or person. Essentially, it’s a form of disengagement as energy ebbs toward the end of life.
The process of decathexis seems to me to be an indicator of ‘fading to black’ as systems shut down and energy is diverted to essential life support. From Steve’s vantage point, I imagine that things, people, and ideas he once cared about seemed to recede in the distance, layer upon layer as his battery ran down.
I’ve reached that point in life where there are many opportunities to say goodbye. Steve tried to do that in the months leading to his death, before the cancer sapped his life-strength. That’s a lesson learned – say your goodbyes before decathexis.
After Steve passed, about 25 of us sat in a loose circle in the courtyard behind Steve’s reconditioned warehouse and shared stories at his memorial. As Linda pointed out, Steve’s network of friends, was – in a word: diverse. Present were childhood friends from Brooklyn, fellow artists, college buddies, dog-walking companions, civic activists, trolley enthusiasts, and of course, dogs. Many of us did not know one another. I struck up conversations with an ex-professional boxer, a retired communications executive, and a trolley museum volunteer. People around the circle took turns sharing a memory — many laughs and a few tears. It was a bit reminiscent of The Big Chill in that the various facets of Steve’s life were revealed like new discoveries – and that the folks assembled realized that they had reason to like each other as well as their departed friend. I guess that is the secret of living: to balance your goodbyes with new hellos.
Disconnecting – Moving Forward
After reading Wal’s piece on disconnection I thought about what it has meant in my life.
Like most things in life, I believe there are varying degrees about what disconnection means. At first thought it implied to me, that you’re either in or you’re out —we are friends or not, we either care or don’t care at all. Over the years, black and white thinking has given way to an array of gray tones and the seduction of a simplicity in choosing one way or another gives rise to the reality of just how complex life can be.
Years ago, an aging, close friend and practitioner of black-and-white theory ended our relationship. Previously we had a bump, a disagreement, but unlike all the other times when connection meant more than any issues we might have had between us, he withdrew and then called to say it was over. It was as abrupt and painful outcome but, as I reflect on it, inevitable.
Beyond our individual tipping points, could it be that age, experience, and wisdom contributes to the courage to disconnect from things we did more for others than for ourselves — from people we tolerated for reasons that no longer hold power over us? Perhaps we are saying “no” more frequently and with less guilt to the things and people who occupy our time in ways that prevent us from spending it in a more meaningful way.
In one of our earlier posts, we shared ideas about relationships and how there seemed to be those that were more situational, those that served a purpose or need during a particular time in our lives, and those that weathered the years and endured. Everything is ever-changing and so are our connections to others. Sometimes in parallel, sometimes not. In the ebb and flow of life, it seems to me that how I spend my energy becomes more of a conscious decision-making behavior that faces me each and every day, As I measure the guesstimate of how I spend my remaining time I realize it no longer appears to provide the luxury of “time to spare.” It is replaced with, “if not now, when?” As a result, people and things I still care about may no longer fit into my more measured and deliberate schedule.
So, if I appear to be less willing to spend time and energy with someone, it may be less a function of liking them less but more about focusing my time with things that matter more in my limited remaining days. It also seems to me that while I may be shifting from my previous behaviors, I can seek to do this as kindly and transparently as possible. In some cases this may already be too late but perhaps I’ll get better at it over time. As I try to write these thoughts I realize they are not clear and succinct but they give me food for thought and opportunities to test them out with others as I travel this life journey.
The Winter of Our Lives
Wally really got me thinking. The kind of thinking that hangs heavy on your mind. I recently read a poem about the winter of our lives. Having just reached the 3/4 of a century mark, the snow has begun to fall metaphorically. I have looked around my house and realized what is going to happen to all my STUFF? The paintings I have collected, the knick knacks and trinkets I had to have, my model railroad equipment, not to mention the family heirlooms I want to pass down to my kids. Unfortunately, much of which they are not interested in. So I have thought perhaps I should start methodically to disengage dispassionately from my stuff. Perhaps, we have to do the same with the people we have collected in our lives. The relatives, colleagues and friends we had to have during those same years. Perhaps, like Wally’s friend did, we have to dispassionately, as much as possible, begin to separate from them, simply because holding too tightly would make the separation too impossible to bare as the season ebbs.
I have had two discussions in my life with close friends who were dying. A close friend and colleague who was diagnosed with a deadly stage 4 cancer told me in one of our last discussions very matter of factly, that at least he knew what he was going to die from which is more than most people can say. My immediate instinct was to minimize the heaviness and deny him that fact because it made me feel better. The last discussion was over lunch 2 months ago with a friend in his mid eighties who spent the last year running to NYC for chemo and radiation which after a year did not improve his condition. Over a pleasant lunch he told me that he told his doctors that he was done. He told me he was just going to wait to die now. Again I wanted to assure him it was a long way away because it made me feel better. He passed away two weeks later.
I was 12 when my grandmother was dying, my aunts called my dad to come quickly. It was after midnight and my mom was at work so Dad woke me and we raced over to their apartment. It was as if she waited for my dad to get there. When we arrived we bent over her for her to kiss us and she took my dad’s hand. A moment later she passed and I witnessed the most intimate tender thing my father ever did as he gently, lovingly closed her eyes and kissed her. 50 years later, I got a call at the inn from my Aunt Edna that Aunt Eleanor was dying and I needed to be there. I was 5 hours away but drove like crazy to get to the same apartment my grandma died in. When I arrived they were preparing her to go in an ambulance to the hospital but she saw me and whispered my name. I took her hand and hugged her good bye. She passed before they left the apartment at the ripe old age of 99. Both she and my grandmother waited for us before they let go. I pray for that kind of courage when it is my turn and I’ll want all my friends to know that any distancing I was doing was because it was so hard to say the final good bye to those I loved during my life.