Yesterday I called a dear friend to tell him how much I love him. He and I have been close to one another for thirty-five years, ever since we took a fairly wild sailing trip from Boston to the northern tip of Nova Scotia in 1975. That was just before I drove across the country to my new assistant-professor job at Utah in my 1968 Volvo, packed with all my belongings except thirty-five cartons of books.
My friend, a dental surgeon who is Dutch in origin though now an American citizen, has been struggling with cancer and other illnesses for the past eight years. It is unlikely that we will ever see one another again, given the difficulties involved in my traveling and his current condition. I have been thinking about him ever since his last phone call to me—he has called me often since my accident—in which he told me that he had finished remodeling his dental-surgery office on Marlborough Street into an apartment again and given the keys to its new owner.
This man was one of the most vigorous, energetic, adventure-seeking, almost daredevil people I’ve ever met, with a love of escapades and adventure that has persisted all his life but is coupled with such level-headed sanity that it’s a wonder to behold. He taught me how to scuba-dive in one day, for example, and has engineered all sorts of ingenious trips. And he’s been a kind of older brother to me, a kind of model, especially for this remarkable combination of adventure and sanity. And that’s not just about hiking and skiing and sailing and the like; it’s been true as the cancer has seized him as well.
It was a rare form of liver cancer, they told him when they first diagnosed it, and they gave him six weeks to live. Six weeks. He called his relatives in the Netherlands, he called his friends, and he and his long-time live-in lady-friend decided to get married, not just for some obvious practical reasons but as a renewed form of commitment in the face of adversity. Just the same, we knew he was dying. Peggy and I went to the wedding, hastily arranged in his club in Boston, but when we got there we realized that it was the most extraordinary of gatherings, of ceremonies: something you could only call a wedding-cum-funeral, both a celebration and a mourning, a positive step in the face of disaster. He and his bride and all of us there expected that he’d be dead in six weeks. It’s at times like this that you learn to be able to say, I love you. But he was also saying, Never give up. Here we are at the wedding, in the photo above.
Now, eight years later, he told me that he and his oncologist have decided to discontinue the experimental treatment he’s been doing ever since his cancer diagnosis because the physical costs of taking the drug, especially weakness, have ceased to be outweighed by the benefits in possibly longer life. He also told me that he’d decided not to put his boat in the water this summer because he is too weak to sail it. I have these premonitions of mortality again. Ever since that phone call I have been thinking a great deal about my friend, especially in the early morning, and I thought that if I believed in heaven I would want to spend as much time as possible with him, forever—or better yet, in the Elysian Fields, where we could wander about talking of things we used to discuss: history, practical things like home preservation, renovation, gardens, and the bird he sees from time to time out his bedroom window. Escapades, of course. And his cat.
I visited my friend, two summers ago on a trip I made to the East Coast with the explicit design of spending three weeks visiting or spending time with old friends. That was something that I had wanted to do right after my retirement—indeed, one of my goals in retiring at that time. At that time this friend was pretty much bedridden. I spent two nights at his home, and his other home in Bristol, Rhode Island. We talked and talked and talked, and I knew when I left that I wouldn’t see him again. As it turned out, I didn’t know exactly why, or that it would be me who couldn’t come to him rather than the other way around.
This entry is a kind of tribute to someone I’ve loved but, realistically, can’t expect ever to see again. We both know that. Of course there’s the telephone; there’s Skype; there are even photographs and videos. But being with someone in person is somehow more powerful, more intimate, more real, and being with someone in person when you realize it may be the last time is even more so. At that remarkable wedding-cum-funeral eight years we also thought we’d never see each other again, but we were wrong; and here it is eight years later and maybe, just maybe, we’ll be wrong again.
Gerard Manley Hopkins talks about the thisness or “inscape” of an object. I lie in bed thinking about my friends, about each one in a distinct way. Inscape is the indwelling landscape of something, here as I’m reinterpreting it, of a person. I lie here and run my mind over and around my various friends, all of them different, with not only obvious differences in exterior matters like appearance or education or occupation, but with deeply different inscapes as well. It’s not just that I have time to do this, as I lie in bed, but that what a friend is has become a much deeper matter to me as well, since I can’t any longer be a friend in the conventional ways—going skiing, hiking, sailing to Nova Scotia, or even just going out to dinner together. I suppose my inscape is changing too, but what’s most present to me as I lie here treasuring my friends is how the inscape of one’s friends evolves too.