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“Writing to the Dying is Difficult”

A former Philadelphian remembers the lessons learned from his most important friend, a popular Germantown radio personality, a year after his untimely death

“Writing to the Dying is Difficult”

A former Philadelphian remembers the lessons learned from his most important friend, a popular Germantown radio personality, a year after his untimely death

Since I have been an employable adult, I have had some good, steady well-meaning people close to me who’ve offered unsolicited advice about what I should do with my life, usually during a vulnerable, not-very-successful time for me — a rough patch, so to speak — and they would always tell me, in not so uncertain terms, that I might want to consider a back-up plan. Maybe a degree in something specialized — or perhaps I should become a teacher? Stay home. Stay close. You’re not ready to go. You can’t afford it. All that.

And when I left for New York the first time to try writing, they said, Move home, move back to Philly why don’t you, all your friends are here. What else is out there for you? I had many of these friends, as I’m sure you do, too.

But then maybe you got lucky, and there was an unexpected, new friend who grabbed you by the arm and flung you into a rocket ship. “Where should we go?” this new friend asked.

These are, in my opinion, the most important friends. And on March 18, 2022, one of my most important friends died. He was only one year older than me, with a wife and kids, parents and friends, and all the awful rest. I’m still processing it, but here we go.

Dry-eyed sobriety

Most people I know spent their first year of sobriety either crying uncontrollably at the most inconsequential, ridiculous things, or were unable to cry at all, even when it was appropriate and probably necessary. I fell into this second category. And honestly, I hadn’t cried in earnest for years. Most of my crying was theatrical and desperate. Like, for example, if I was caught in a lie. Or, if I wanted to appear sensitive, I could turn on the faucet and temporarily show tenderness. (I believe this is called “being manipulative.”)

Actually, the first time I saw Up, I got very teary. That was legit.

But during all of my First Year, I had nothing. Dry as welder’s skin. Dry as an August haystack. Dry as a busted skull in an ancient desert. You get the idea.

Since then, I’ve had several wet-eyed moments. The first time I heard my son call me “Papa,” it got me good. Then about a year later, he had to have some minor surgery, so they had him all zonked out on baby Ativan before taking him to the operating room. When the anesthesiologist took him away, I had to look up and find a spot on the ceiling to stare at, or else I would have been a complete mess.

Maybe you got lucky, and there was an unexpected, new friend who grabbed you by the arm and flung you into a rocket ship. “Where should we go?” this new friend asked. These are, in my opinion, the most important friends.

Also: my wedding day. It was a small ceremony presided over by a justice of the peace in a Beverly Hills rancher on a halfway sunny late afternoon in December. After we got back home, I held Julieanne’s hand on our couch as some of our friends huddled around a fancy-looking homemade cake while we bounced TWO babies on our laps. Filled up then.

Then our youngest son, our third, had a couple of scary medical emergencies in his young life. Actually, I held it together both of those times. I didn’t think any tears would help those situations. Maybe there were a couple more wet-eyed moments I’m forgetting, but nothing substantial.

Anyway, none of that is important anymore.

“And here we are.”

Last April, I received the first “Family Update” email from my most important friend, Jim Bear. (Jim was the beloved and admired founder of G-Town radio, the independent nonprofit station that broadcasts throughout North and Northwest Philly.) I was cc’d on it with a select group of his other friends and faraway family, and he told us about his aggressive, menacing cancer and the exotic locales of his many tumors.

He told us that he initially felt very low and hopeless after receiving such grim news, but he had since shifted into the angry defiance of a man loved by many who wanted to stay around a long, long time. He wished us all the best and said he’d send another update after his initial surgery.

When I got the email, I immediately became overly emotional and nostalgic. I quickly fired off a heavy-handed response, reminiscing about a vacation we’d taken together to Cat Island in 2001. We drank all day and took ecstasy on the beach. We tossed a football in the ocean and outswam the barracudas. We even jumped off a cliff together. First, we climbed up some craggy mountain in cheap flip-flops. It was about a 40-foot jump into sparkling blue water above an underwater cave. He hesitated slightly, but I jumped right off, flailing and alive.

“I’ve always admired you for leaping,” he said. “I think I worry too much about nailing the landing instead of enjoying the trip.”

Then I went even further in the email and proceeded to tell him how much he’d meant to me — his importance to my life. I may have even said something along the lines of, “You made my life what it is today,” because it is 100 percent true, and I wanted him to hear it. It could not wait, I thought.

Jim said that it was nice to relive that memory, but he also informed me that my response was “really wild,” which was a polite way of him saying that it was “a little inappropriate given the circumstances.” Not about you, dude, basically.

But he’d recently thought of that trip, actually. Coconut-cracking. Palapas. Those barracudas. That jump.

“I’ve always admired you for leaping. I think I worry too much about nailing the landing instead of enjoying the trip.”

That’s not entirely true. He took many leaps before me, and I always followed.

So much time had passed since then. But that trip was sensational. I knew every moment we spent there on that beach, in those palapas, eating fresh fish and drinking daiquiris like they were regular old iced teas, that it would be the best vacation of my life.

He started the next paragraph with, “And here we are.” That rattled me. We were back in the present, this terrible present, and his surgery was scheduled for the next day. “Talk to you soon,” I wrote.

“Tell me everything.”

I’ve mentioned this poet named George Bilgere several times before. He’s probably my favorite poet, even though he’s a very ordinary 60-ish white guy who lives just outside of Cleveland. Please bear with me.

Sometimes his poems tackle the exact subjects you’d expect from someone like him: painful childhood memories of his scotch-drinking father, teenage lust before the Vietnam War took over, mewling for baseball heroes long-dead, baristas at the coffee shop with nose rings — dumpy late-middle-aged dad stuff.

I’ve read almost all of his compilations, and his misses are pretty embarrassing, but he’s moved me to an outer emotional edge many times as well. Like this poem called Letter to the Dying about his own most important friend.

Writing to the dying is difficult
Because I don’t want to say anything true.
Saying something like, You’ve had such a great life
will make it sound like he’s dying.
And you can’t say that! It’s OK
For him to say it, but my role, as I see it,
Is to be evasive. I can’t even say
I love you, because I would never say that
unless he were dying, and if I say it
he’ll know he’s dying.

I kept this poem humming in my heart, and I didn’t respond to any more of those Family Update emails after that. Not even a supportive “Hooray!” when Jim informed us of a successful surgery or a good round of chemo. I said nothing because I knew I was incapable of evasiveness.

Then, one night he emailed me directly. He was up late on the East Coast. “I just need to think about something else today. Tell me everything.”

And I quickly wrote him thousands of words about my life, my happy life, I could think of. I aimed to give him the best, most uplifting stuff I’d had in me to help him forget his awful day, shrink the tumors, or stop time.

I’d hoped he’d write back within the hour with a “That’s exactly what I needed!” but that did not happen. Days passed, and he didn’t write back. I was itching with failure, wondering if, once again, I’d said too much.

He sent out another Family Update right before the holidays, and things were looking up. A corner had been turned. He had some time away from the hospital. Hiked with his family near the Wissahickon. Thanksgiving was fun and special. He even ran a half marathon. Slowest one he ever ran, he said, but still — incredible.

Nothing came for a while after that amazing news, so I broke the silence in late February and sent him an email requesting the latest Family Update if he had time. It took a couple of weeks for him to respond. The latest news wasn’t great, he said. A major setback. Specialists were needed. He still had hope, though. I responded evasively: “Stay positive and let us know if there’s anything we can do.”

A meditation on unalloyed grief

When I think about unalloyed grief, I think of Roger Angell’s 2014 New Yorker essay, This Old Man, written when he was a 94-year-old semi-retired “blogger,” which became the most popular story on the New Yorker website ever. It’s this lovely but grueling meditation on life and death and in one section he rattled off a list of names of important people and beloved pets he’s watched pass on — “the battalion of the dead ” is what he called them. One of them was his daughter, Callie, who died by suicide in her 60s. Soon after she died, his beloved eight-year-old fox terrier, Harry, was startled by a summer storm and leapt out a very high Upper West Side apartment window. Angell and his wife, Carol, were crushed.

Maura’s message was brief and broken-hearted: The love of her life had died the day before.

“When Harry died, Carol and I couldn’t stop weeping; we sat in the bathroom with his retrieved body on a mat between us, the light-brown patches on his back and the near-black of his ears still darkened by the rain, and passed a Kleenex box back and forth between us. Not all the tears were for him. Two months earlier, a beautiful daughter of mine, my oldest child, had ended her life, and the oceanic force and mystery of that event had not left full space for tears. Now we could cry without reserve, weep together for Harry and Callie and ourselves. Harry cut us loose.”

When I imagined what Roger Angell meant by “cut us loose,” I pictured a fishing line tangled up, weighed down by messy kelp and other sea junk. This makes no sense metaphorically — Who is the fish? Who is the fisherman? — but that’s what I pictured.

Cutting me loose

Julieanne took me to Malibu recently for my birthday weekend, for a day at one of those sublime beaches and a night away from our kids at a nice hotel. We have three, and they’re all very young and dependent, and we are as sleep-deprived and crazed as every parent of toddlers, but both of us miss them terribly when we’re away from them, even for a night.

When I woke the following morning, I was still on the usual 6am parent time, ready to tackle Wordle half-asleep, but the latest Family Update was sitting in my Gmail. Unlike the previous emails, this one came from Jim’s wife, Maura, who is also a friend of mine. Her message was brief and broken-hearted: The love of her life had died the day before.

The expectedness of that moment did not protect me from its velocity. And as I lay there in bed and told Julieanne about it, I began to cry. The tears were silver-heavy and sharp. She rubbed my back and tried to hold me because noises were coming out of me — these strange, unstoppable gasps. I realized I hadn’t cried this way in a long time, not since I was very young, maybe never, honestly.

He had cut me loose.

The rocket ship has landed

When I finally got out of bed, I wasn’t sure what to do next. Wait for another email? Hop on a plane? Maybe I should do nothing at all. I was supposed to speak at a 5pm A.A. meeting. That seemed impossible.

We finally left the room and walked outside. I was surprised that the world had not stopped. The stairs to the restaurant were still available to walk up. Brunch was still being served. A banana tree swayed softly thanks to this chilly, annoying wind.

We had some coffee and then walked down to the pier. There were fishing poles in rod holders, lines slack with silly lures floating like lost feathers.

We went down to the beach, and we found a rock to sit on so I could stare off into the big nothing. “Look at me now,” I thought. This is where the rocket ship had landed.

The surfers rolled in on small foamy waves, taking turns being obvious metaphors. “Thank you for bringing me here,” I said quietly, a small prayer for my most important friend. And then, for maybe a second, the wind stopped.

AJ Daulerio is the former editor of Deadspin and Gawker. This piece first ran in The Small Bowhis newsletter about long-term recovery.

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G-Town Radio founder Jim Bear, courtesy of G-Town Radio.

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