May Gray is getting to me, or it could be that I ran out of my anti-depressants some time ago, or maybe it was the fact that on Monday I learned an old friend had died. Of course there are several other things in my life that seem so difficult as to be near impossible. Another friend (she will be alive forever) pointed out to me that I am one of those people for whom life's ordinary problems are just too difficult. Naturally I resent the idea that I am some withering pantywaist who collapses like a cheap umbrella at every hangnail, but there is some truth to this. This same friend also pointed out, on a different occasion, that I can be good in a serious crisis but turn to a human pantsload when the little old lady ahead of me in line is paying for a lottery ticket with a check from an Icelandic bank, has no ID, and the cashier is kind, patient, and speaks only Tagalog. I often joke in that wacky way that I have that I don't have an anger problem, I have an irritation problem. When someone close to your age dies, among a seeming cluster of recent, similar deaths -- that is, age-wise and of natural causes and not like the murder (a collective noun usually applied to crows) of overdoses in the 1960s and '70s -- irritation has nothing to do with it. The greater part of grief is always fear, but that factor becomes more pronounced in late middle age. As an alcoholic, I find that the ubiquitous keeling-over of friends and acquaintances is like constantly running into or being reminded of an old girlfriend who was pure poison, though memory insists upon serving her up as beautiful and fascinating. A single encounter with the bitch will bring the horror back home soon enough. No, let me correct that -- maybe not soon enough at all, but inevitably anyway.
Among the ghastly aspects of that one special romantic love gone to hell (subject to return, say, once a year, like Persephone in Greek myth -- just metaphorically maybe: in the heart, in dreams, in the passing of a woman smelling of that certain perfume, Mayhem, or literally at Starbucks at UTC) is the realization that she wasn't even human. She was some heartless, alien vampire with thick ankles and what were once alluring, bee-stung, pouting lips but now appear as if they were just stuck in a pool drain in a freak accident.
The smell of bourbon, once redolent with imagery of Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, or Lauren Bacall, now reeks of something used to strip paint off an aircraft carrier. Or the other way around, if you follow me.
It was on a Monday morning that I heard of my friend's death. It was not a huge surprise, but so much sooner than the traitor Hope had allowed for. I will mention the Monday thing in some lame attempt to point out the very antithesis of a Friday-of-the-mind kind of deal, where freedom, promise, possibility are the bywords for which we TG it's Friday. On the other hand, maybe death is the ultimate Friday night.
I was rewatching the movie The Mission recently. Jeremy Irons, playing a Jesuit in the 19th-century Brazilian jungle, tells soldier-turned-priest Robert De Niro something close to "God burdens each of us with freedom." I love the line for many reasons; one of them, it strikes me, is that death may be the penultimate freedom. Certainly it is a release from root canal work and having to take your in-laws to see Riverdance for the second time. Naturally the line has more to do with free will than anything else. But for just a moment I substituted the words "death" and "freedom," and I relished it for several moments, thought it through, and discovered I had scared myself. The idea that death might present even more options at once exhausted me and then had me thinking of Jack Daniel's followed quickly by a kind of ghost nausea.
I'm not sure why I included that paragraph other than the death thing, and then there's God, you know, when you get into that stuff. I loved Stephen King's answer to Terry Gross (I think) when interviewed on NPR and was asked why he believed in God. King's answer was, "Because it makes my life better." The more I though about it, the better answer I believed it to be.
I'm not going to eulogize my late friend here. Another time and place have been set aside, but I can't count on being able to say much. After all, in the 16 years I knew her, I think I was in her company fewer than a dozen times, but we spoke for many hours over the phone, especially in my most grievous drinking days when she would go beyond mentor and be mother. She said many things I actually do remember -- a small miracle in itself -- and the best of them was when she told me to "Give yourself permission to fail."
Possibly I took that too much to heart, but it was among the best things anyone had ever said to me. Whether I drank or not that day is for an anonymous meeting, and there, pretty much, is your answer, isn't it? I will only say to my absent friend, I did not drink over you.