When friends die it always comes too soon. At least, that’s been my observation. There was a next conversation that didn’t happen. A hoped-for connection that was short-circuited by the insistence of a selfish, demanding Enemy.
This week, one of my friends died. Ryan came into my life through his friendship with my kids. His picture was on their refrigerator. I met him at their house. He was engaged to Kristen, both beautiful, both outdoors people, both literate and talented and a gift to the human race. On their wedding night Ryan was struck with headaches. They spent the night in a hospital, and received a diagnosis of brain tumor, most likely terminal.
For me it was hard to imagine a more diabolical life script. Yet amidst the sadness, and the lonely weeks of desperation, multiple graces emerged. True friends and sensitive strangers brought food and companionship without the intrusion of well-meaning dietary fixes or insulting pleas to bargain with God. Ryan fought hand-to-hand with his anger and regrets … until in the end he had astounded all of us with his warmth, hospitality, transparency, and gratitude for daily blessings. When a man has no discernible future, it forces him to find comforts in his past and appreciate his present. Ryan did that better than I could imagine myself doing, if our situations were exchanged.
Ryan was embarrassed about what steroids did to his body. He shouldn’t have been. Ryan was self-effacing about his comments at the recent Health Summit — he shouldn’t have been. His comments were earnest, relevant and incisive. Ryan was apologetic when I asked him what he was thinking about. “I’m thinking about death. It’s very macabre.” I assured him it was not, and told him about my experience with the death of my best friend David in 10th grade, after a 4-year battle with lymphoma. I shared with him how angry I had been at God — angry that such a bright soul was lost. Angry that David had died and not me. And transformed by the experience … I told Ryan how radically it shaped my life. He seemed grateful that we could actually talk about those emotions. I wanted to continue the conversation but other friends arrived and it was time to move on. I asked if I could return in a few days to read him some poetry. He said that would be lovely. I kissed him on the forehead and told him that I loved him. He told me he loved me.
But I didn’t love him all that much… my work week fell apart and the time I thought I would have off disappeared… and with it our next conversation.
Here is one of the poems I wanted to read to Ryan last Thursday or Friday.
Antidote to fear of death
Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.
Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.
Sometimes, instead, I stir myself
Into a universe still young,
Still warm as blood:
No outer space, just space,
The light of all the not yet stars
Drifting like a bright mist,
And all of us, and everything
But unconstrained by form.
And sometimes it’s enough
To lie down here on earth
Beside our long ancestral bones:
To walk across the cobble fields
Of our discarded skulls,
Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis,
Thinking: whatever left these husks
Flew off on bright wings.
–Rebecca Elson — a promising young astronomer whose life was cut short by cancer while in her 30s.
Ryan died Sunday morning. I missed our next conversation… and hope for another one, sometime, someplace.