I got email this afternoon from an old friend's sister, telling me he was dead. The message began with "Please forgive this crude and cruel method of notifying you." He died "probably" on Saturday. I liked the bluntness and self-awareness of the message. The sister, whom I never met, contacted me through a series of group emails my friend used to send out, usually concerning problems in American education or politics. My last email to him concerned the sorry state of education and politics in North Carolina these days. He didn't respond. He was a forwarder.
He died alone. He had been ill for quite some time, seriously so since about the time his wife died. That must have been about ten years ago, maybe more. He came to visit me in the apartment I lived in back then, shortly after he had had serious surgery, was no longer employed, and had time on his hands. He, his wife, and I used to go to movies together every Friday afternoon in Pensacola, and we'd get together on Sunday evenings to eat pizza and tabbouleh while watching movies we rented on VHS. That long ago.
He used to work for General Electric, I think, and then changed careers to teach English where I taught English back then. He taught on a different campus. We met because he took a film class I taught--twice, because he liked it. The second time he brought a friend, who for a short time was my friend too, who then stopped being friends with either one of us, for reasons known to neither of us. This friend of a friend who briefly was my friend too liked to complain about people using the expression "bad weather." The point was that there's no such thing as bad weather because weather has no moral quality to it. It exists apart from our ethics. It is indifferent to our needs and wants. We call it bad when it's inconvenient for us. But storms are simply the way nature works. Nature needs storms, plants need the rain, we need the plants. I appreciated the stoicism of the complaint. It's one of those things I have taken to heart and made part of my life philosophy.
It had been years since Don's name sprang to mind whenever conversation turned to the subject of people I considered my friends. But he used to be my friend, somebody I saw at least twice a week, usually three times a week. And he sent me articles by Robert Reich and other moderate lefties every couple of months since I last saw him. When we saw movies on Friday afternoons, we always went someplace for pie or a sandwich afterwards. To discuss. To analyze. To critique. If we all hated the movie, he inevitably asked what might have been done to make the movie a better one. A different cast? a change of ending? more sex? less exposition? He was big on discussing things, and he was a very good discusser, pragmatic, reasonable, affable, except now and then when we were drinking and his face went red, and then he went to some pretty dark places.
Now he's dead. "Crude and cruel" are the only methods of expressing such an inconvenient fact honestly, from a human perspective. But nothing is really "crude" and "cruel" in nature. A thing like that is just what it is. But sometimes it's good to think about what might have been done to make it better.