In one of those stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night. And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend...
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Recently, I learned that my friend S passed away, and because I have long believed that when someone dies, his spirit is more palpable in the air for us to experience, cherish, and enjoy, I’d like to tell you about him.
S was generous-hearted, thoughtful, and non-judgmental. He lived to make other people laugh. His own laugh was big, like his soul. When I hung out with him, I felt reassured: In his presence, I would crack up.
Before meeting S in early 2006, I had startled myself with the thought that I might never make another friend as long as I live. I was chain-smoking on a street corner and that thought was terrifying, a signal that I was seriously depressed. (To this connection-loving Aquarius, what is life without love and friendship?) That S was the next friend I made is part of what makes him and our relationship so special to me. By showing up as a kindred spirit with an endless supply of good humor, his friendship brought me back to life.
At the time, S and I both lived in Park Slope. We met at the Seventh Avenue Starbucks, which is what he called me in his phone contacts, "Starbucks." He was focused on things like winning over the unfriendly woman who worked at his local laundry. He tried so hard to strike up conversation, and every time, she ignored him. One day, a guy ahead of him in line was being difficult and after the guy left, S, who had peeked over the guy’s shoulder to read the name on the slip, walked up to the counter, rolled his eyes and said knowingly to the woman: “Ah, geez. Mr. B…” "You know Mr. B?” she said, smiling at S for the first time. He loved telling that story.
S had a regular routine every Tuesday: He would buy a rotisserie chicken at the grocery story to give, along with $20, to a homeless man named Matthew, who hung out on the corner. I didn't know this because S told me. I knew because I saw it happen. I took note of his quiet generosity, only to better understand it later, when I learned more about S and what he’d struggled with in his life. He embodied that quote: “There, but by the grace of God, go I.” S was tall and brawny, with a teddy bear of a heart.
Months later, I bumped into Matthew, who asked how S was doing. He told me that S had given him a lot of belongings one day--a fancy winter coat and the like--and that concerned him. He wanted to make sure S was OK. When I told S that Matthew was asking about him, he laughed, “You realize that most people’s mutual friends are Betty from accounting or John from the whatever club, and our one mutual friend is Matthew the homeless man. What's wrong with this picture?” Really, everything was right with this picture. There, but by the grace of God, go we.
Then, S disappeared and when he resurfaced, he told me more about his life, his struggles, stuff he’d not wanted to share. I was heartbroken for him, but also touched by his humility and honesty. He took a tough situation and made it damn good joke fodder. He admitted that he did get some bit of pleasure in thinking about the absurdist way I might tell the story to my friends. Even at a trying time, his heart was large enough to lend me some affection: You're kind of a weirdo, but I get a kick out of you anyway.
Most people, knowing the story, cautioned me against spending more time with him. I took my time and listened to my heart, and said, “Nah. We’re friends, and we’re going to be friends.” I never regretted that decision, not for a millisecond. And ever since I learned that he was sick, in January of this year, I've had an even greater appreciation for that time--and how important it is, in general, to filter out all the well-meaning, but terrible advice. Most people's advice is irrelevant, at the very least, perfectly suited to someone else's heart.
We went on to have a lovely, peaceful summer together, going to the beach, eating hot fudge sundaes and lobster rolls, watching movies. Eventually, we drifted, but stayed in touch.
I wrote about this experience in Much to Your Chagrin, and when I sent the book to him before publication, I was nervous about how he might respond. I’d written about some of his struggles and wanted his permission to share. Out of everyone portrayed in the book, I felt like he had reason to be sensitive. (Though when the book went through my publisher's legal department, the lawyer said of him, "That's a great guy.")
S back wrote swiftly, “Bought it. Read it (last night). Loved it. You are wonderful. I really want you to know I am so happy for you. I loved the time that we were together. I suppose that's really what I most want to say.” Again, this is the mark of S's character: I wouldn't have blamed him for making my personal story all about him--after all, I'd revealed a lot--but instead, he showed up with his trademark generosity of spirit. He knew how much publishing that book meant to me. My joy was his joy. If that's not the mark of a true friend, I don't know what is.
At the time, I’d gotten blowback from couple loved ones who were offended by the book. One even called me in what seemed to be a fugue state, asking gravely, "So how are you doing with this publication?" sounding as if the achievement I'd worked so hard for was utterly tragic news. (I choked back a laugh, refraining from pointing out the obvious: Well, I did sign the contract to have it published, so....pretty good!) In contrast, S's wide-open, enthusiastic response, his purity of heart, was especially healing, and I've thought of and been grateful for this moment often over the years.
Eventually, we lost touch, until this January, when he sent me an email saying that he was dying of cancer. He sounded like his upbeat, philosophical self, detailing the ins and outs of his days, his condition, the kinds of existential questions that occupied his mind. He’d had many wonderful years with the love of his life, who was taking excellent care of him, and though things were hard with his illness, they still had plenty of good times together. He said, “Joy comes cheap if you put yourself in the right frame of mind.”
After witnessing Karen leave this world in 2017, I felt like I already had an advanced degree in Mortality-What's-the-Point studies. That experience was, among other things, one of slow-burning transformation. Not only did I have such precious time with her, but every time a resultant gift of reveals itself--and there have been many--I feel a renewed kinship with her, like we're sharing exactly the kind of stuff we used to share, only now it's communicated differently.
A couple years back, I wrote about the blessings of mortality here. At the time, I didn't want to reveal anything about her illness or how challenging that was to watch. But I did happen to see a person in a Grim Reaper costume *just* beyond the window of Halloween, and he happened to go out of his way to say, "God bless you!" and that got me thinking: What would the blessings of mortality be? I have written hundreds of pages on this, but mostly, the blessing, as I see it, has to do with keeping it real. We're all going to die and watch loved ones die, too. With no getting around the fact of existence, I see but one option: staying true to ourselves, our hearts, our feelings. To leave the world without the regret of pretending. A need for authenticity--boosted by the truth serum that is grief--has been the catalyst for much change in my life over the last year. What I value in myself and in my relationships has shifted dramatically.
I mention only because this is the lens through which I see S's death. Not only was he a good and kind soul, but he lived a wonderful life. I can only imagine how many hearts and lives he touched by being himself--real, tender, human, hilarious, always speaking from the heart. I am so lucky to know him in the limited way I did and fortunate to have connected again in these last several months. My heart sings when I think of the conversation we had about the real stuff, death, and not being squeamish. In addition to agreeing that death is natural, not a pathology, he acknowledged how blessed and loved he was, from all corners, to be surrounded by his love and his loved ones and to be able to speak to each other so openly. He gave love abundantly, he received love abundantly, and he was love abundantly. That's the definition of a life well-lived. Prayers up to his family members, especially his love.
In S’s honor, let's seek out the joy that comes so easily, go out of our way to make someone laugh, celebrate our loved ones in all their quirky, flawed glory, show kindness and generosity, listen to our internal compasses, wear our heart on our sleeve, and especially be grateful that we are right here, right now.