Today, a close friend of mine would have turned 34. He died two years ago from a severe, and rare form of brain cancer. He developed a large tumor behind the optic nerve of the right eye, which as it grew and swelled in size, eventually rendered him partially blind. Chemotherapy was nominally helpful. Though it did shrink the tumor to a fraction of its original size, sadly, the disease was too powerful, too greedy, and it eventually took his life.
His family has chosen to keep his Facebook page active and, like a kind of shrine, I have visited today to pay my respects. The icon has been changed to a majestic image of a rainbow. It’s an appropriate choice of visuals, I have to say. Though I wasn’t quite sure what to say, I’ve left a comment for him in any case.
I wonder, in terribly 21st Century fashion, if you can read comments posted to your Wall after you die. I wonder if they restrict Instagram or Twitter in heaven, but allow Facebook on a conditional basis. I wonder if you're able to reach back into your physical life, before you became soul and spirit, or if there are far nobler tasks to perform.
I may have a bit of survivor’s guilt. The two of us both suffered from bipolar disorder. I sought treatment, he largely did not. When I was a senior in high school, the depression hit hard and did not let up. I spent three months in the hospital receiving the treatment of last resort, periodic shock therapy. At the time, I was a heavy cigarette smoker, and my friend arrived at visiting hours every day with company and a fresh pack.
Minus the cigarettes, my parents were touched by the gesture. No one else had bothered to visit, but in honesty, I had not exactly advertised my location. Before my own series of intense treatments, which eventually rendered me nearly catatonic and my speech nonsensical, I had been too ashamed to reveal where I was. The news eventually got out, as news always does, but my classmates were uniformly supportive and sympathetic, much to my surprise.
My continued existence was miraculous. Had I not been hospitalized when I was, I likely would have died by my own hand. I was already making plans to end my own life and a failed attempt had gotten me where I’d been. Bipolar disorder and depression is a genetic condition, a product of bad luck, not self-abuse. I was not taking risks with street drugs or feeding an addiction. Though causes don’t exactly matter anymore, as for my friend, no one is entirely sure.
The news about my friend’s cancer spread with the same swift speed. By then, we’d largely grown apart. I’d started a new life elsewhere. Out of the blue I got a call from my sister, who stressed the severity of the condition and that the diagnosis was terminal, at which point I began to see if could resume contact. I found him eventually, learning that he’d been on his own search to find me. By then, the cancer had already taken hold. Brain cancer causes the sufferer to be forgetful, confused, a little like Alzheimer’s. He couldn’t remember my last name but had kept trying.
Though I resisted at first, I knew I needed to say my goodbyes. Much to her credit, my mother browbeat me into a final meeting during a visit home. It was a five minute drive from my parents' house, where I grew up, to his parents' house, where he grew up. I knew the route by heart, expecting a familiar black Labrador retriever to bound from inside the residence. Lamentably, I was told she had passed on a few years earlier.
He was a wreck. By then, he couldn’t walk without the aid of a cane and could only make his way up and down stairs with assistance from someone else. Words seemed to spill out of the side of his mouth, rather than project crisply into the air. He knew he was going to die and had coined a largely incoherent rationale for it, part theological, part pop psychology, one I was grateful I misunderstood. So long as we were talking about music and pop culture, I could pretend that we were a couple of kids back in school.
I stayed an hour, spoke briefly with his parents, updated them with my progress, and drove away. Four months later, he died. That day, I lost my greatest champion. A true friend is someone who keeps you from getting your ass kicked. Years earlier, I’d run up against a jealous boyfriend with a gorgeous model for a girlfriend, and his paranoia nearly led to blows. My friend had defused the situation neatly and it was never an issue again.
Friendship evolve over time. We had been inseparable once, then I went in one direction and he chose another. Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And sorry I could not travel both
He’d needed me more than I’d needed him. I’d recognized that we were growing apart before he did. Maybe he never recognized, even to the end.
He was my biggest fan. But any of us who have cultivated admirers and well-wishers know that who we are, really, is rarely what someone else sees. At the beginning of a relationship, our lover is perfect, unsullied, unflawed in every way. Some of us see the cracks and the fissures earlier. He idealized me because he saw dysfunction everywhere in his own life, in his own family. I was a buffer between constant conflict with every issue brushed under the rug. Or at least that’s what I choose to believe.
I have no confirmation now. In the weeks and days before his death, we spoke by phone and text on a regular basis. He confirmed many of my earlier suspicions: the alcoholic father, the dismissive, self-absorbed older brother, the mother desperately trying to hold it together in a typically Midwestern sense of stoicism. It is the story of many and it explained why he stuck to me like a burr to a woolen sock. Though I could not bear to correct him, I wish I was the person he thought I was.