When we lose an old friend, dissonance flattens a harmonious chord of memory.
We called each other friends, John Joseph Murphy and I. For decades. We were young together. High school, college, even our first full-time jobs out of school with the same publishing company. We honed our craft under the tutelage of old pros named Barker, Dowd and Clemente, broke away in the mornings for coffee and doughnuts at some diner dive on Broadway and at noon for payday lunches at the neighborhood corner bar. We occasionally made our way back to Papa’s, a college hangout — 10-cent splits and dollar pitchers — where Jack had befriended the bartender, Nick the Greek.
“Nick cooks on Thursday night. You and Sue should come to dinner,” he said one day.
I didn’t even know the place had a stove, much less that Nick could cook.
“Yeah, it’s by invitation only, and you’re invited.”
What a respite. No menu, just a weekly dinner for a buck and a quarter. Veal and peppers or spaghetti or chicken cacciatore or meatloaf. And yes, Nick could cook. Lovely memories locked in a soft-focus haze, with one still vivid — the night Sue and I brought our firstborn with us and Nick stuck several silver dollars under his blanket. “It’s an old Greek custom that insures good luck.”
Jack was one of those rare guy-friends whom wives enjoy. Fun but considerate. He was always welcome, often present, enough so that he became the godfather to our oldest. When Sue gave birth to our first, Jack gave her her first dozen long-stem red roses. I had entertained some romantic notion that one rose was the way to go. “That’s why I sent her a dozen, you dope,” he said, laughing. “I knew you’d never do it.”
Our careers took us in different directions soon enough — mine to Burlington, Vermont, and Jack’s to New Haven, Connecticut. These were years of hope, idealism and energy. On one of his visits we took the ferry across Lake Champlain and spent a sunny, warm afternoon at a patio bar in Port Kent, New York. We ate pizza, drank beer and threw darts as we plotted a statewide weekly newspaper for Vermont. Such were young men’s dreams.
Time, 900 miles, tight budgets and the dictates of family-raising and career-building kept us from seeing one another much. But we were never more than a phone call away. We shared our triumphs. We shared our kids’ passages and successes. We shared our heartaches and heartbreaks. I lectured him after his heart attack. Choked back a tear with him when Mary Alice died too soon. Knew where to seek succor when the headwinds of Sue’s cancer buffeted us. We listened and we encouraged one another. He was also a good listener who told a good story, especially if it involved his trips to Ireland or his affection for train travel. Best of all were his Midtown exploits with his buddy Mel Allen, the “Voice of the Yankees.”
Jack was in love with journalism, an accomplished reporter then editor. He took the helm of a daily in his early 30s. Later in his career, the state power authority asked him to become its public information officer. Public relations? You would have thought he had been invited to the dark side. But tuition bills had to be paid, and the newspaper game was changing — and not for the better. He accepted knowing that even corporate giants needed their stories told accurately and sympathetically. He brought his journalist’s integrity to the task. Be transparent. Get out in front of the story.
Our contact drifted these past few years. Recent Christmas cards and emails went unanswered. I wanted to talk to him when Oscar died. Again when we lost Tom. Loved and respected mentors to us both. I should have just picked up the phone and called.
Why I didn’t puzzles me. Maybe I just took it for granted that he’d be there. Or foolishly I thought perhaps he was annoyed with me for who knows what. Friends tell me that’s a normal thought. But it shouldn’t be. Especially with Murph. I don’t remember him ever getting annoyed or upset, except that afternoon when I kidnapped his bride. From their wedding reception! We went to Papa’s, of course, where Nancy sat at the bar in her gown while a grinning Nick served drinks on the house. Jack was slightly peeved — well maybe more than slightly — when I brought her back. Then all was forgiven the following week when a humorous account appeared in Barker’s weekly Times Union column.
Old age is not a stage of life we get to look back on, not in the way we look back on childhood, adolescence, young adulthood or even middle age. We don’t grow out of this stage.
Years later when he and Mary Alice got married he gave me a stern, “don’t you dare” look. I didn’t. Maturity tempers the prankster in us.
I failed to call. I regret it in part because we didn’t share getting old. Time doesn’t slip away in this eighth decade. It rushes away, no longer the still water of our youth, a pool in which to play and soak. Now it’s an accelerating river rushing to an indefinite destination. I regret that lost chance to slip into the familiar banter of old friends. I regret not hearing his big laugh again.
The death of an old friend spurs reflection, stimulates memory. Old age is not a stage of life we get to look back on, not in the way we look back on childhood, adolescence, young adulthood or even middle age. We don’t grow out of this stage. But within that sad fact lies the rich opportunity for introspection.
This is the time for resolution. Call it the need for harmony, call it attending to unfinished business. Erik Erikson talks of achieving integration, whereby we try to reconcile our lives of self-absorption with lives of generativity in which we reach out to others or try to leave something good behind. Maybe it’s what Thomas Merton called discovering the true self, the person God intended us to be?
That’s the conversation we never had.
Jack didn’t harbor annoyance. He suffered diminishment. Over three-plus years his health problems took him from one senior-living facility to another. Then to a long hospital stay. Then to a makeshift bedroom in his daughter’s home where he died peacefully, Lori laying her head on his chest and telling him, “It’s okay, Dad.” His last years, she would tell me, were episodic swings from clarity to bewilderment to confusion to an exhaustion induced by diabetes and COPD.
Murph is no longer time’s captive. If heaven’s a comfortable Pullman coach and an inviting club car roaming the Irish countryside, he’s surely on it.
As for my regret? In old age, our past haunts us. Like most 79-year-olds I walk with many ghosts — so many people gone who now reside in memory. Memory as meditation on friends and loved ones who taught me, shaped me, nourished me, became essential ingredients of the who of me. We can’t make old friends.
Frank Cunningham retired as president and publisher at Ave Maria Press at Notre Dame. He is author of the award-winning Vesper Time: The Spiritual Practice of Growing Older.