Nothing brings on regret more quickly than the death of a friend. I almost hesitate to call Kirby, who died a few weeks ago, a friend, even though I had known him many years. He was one of those people I would see almost daily for months, then not at all for a year or longer and then constantly again.
In the last year, we had become friendly again, often sharing a table at Starbucks, our laptops butting against one another. But his favorite place to be was on a barstool. Like me, he had a taste for lowlife. He thought my decision 21 years ago to stop drinking was akin to slamming shut the door to life's carnival.
That doesn't mean he was out of control. Indeed, his partner -- about whom I never heard him say a single negative word -- was 83, more than 33 years older than Kirby, who was 49. They had been together many years. I never met his partner, but was rude enough to ask what kept them together with such an enormous age difference. Kirby looked at me with his impatient gaze and said, "Love, duh."
As usual, Kirby disappeared some months ago ... and re-emerged with his head shaved. "I like the new look," I told him.
"Thanks," he said. "You can get it if you have chemo, too."
It turned out he had liver cancer. He began coming around regularly again and I certainly could see no difference in his affect because of the cancer. "It's a wake-up call, no doubt about it," he said. "Everything seems different."
"How so?" I asked.
"Regret," he said. "One minute I regret everything. The next I regret nothing. One moment everything matters. The next nothing does."
I got weepy. "Don't worry, I haven't found Jesus," he said, breaking the serious moment with sarcasm, as usual.
During the next few months, he refused to discuss the status of his health whenever I saw him. That in itself was quite a change. Kirby's most annoying habit was that he talked about himself at great length, usually hilariously, but wasn't much of a listener. He always made me feel like a colossal bore. The moment I began talking, he looked around the room. This habit actually made me dislike him when we were younger. Eventually I said something to him about it and he told me a long story about being sent to the (now disgraced) Arthur Andersen executive "sensitivity training program" because he was so clueless about the concerns of his co-workers. "You can see how much good it did me ... and where Arthur Andersen ended up," he said. My annoyance diminished as we aged, in any case. You learn to see through such things.
But his silence about his disease made me uneasy. My heart began to ache when he came around. I wanted to ask but respected his silence. I knew he was suffering but he was not the sort of person to talk about it.
I learned of his death from Dick, the 78-year-old regular at Starbucks who reads the obituaries obsessively and often sat next to Kirby at a nearby bar. His death was horrifying. He went in for a chemo treatment, Dick told me, and the blood vessels in his respiratory tract burst open. He literally drowned in his own blood.
My hand instantly went to my heart when I heard it. I have replayed the scene in my head a thousand times. It would be horrible for anyone, but one of Kirby's constant rants was about the failures of technology and I can almost hear his outraged thoughts as he underwent that trauma. I imagine his rage fluttering away with his breath, leaving him suddenly, unexpectedly dead of the very thing meant to cure him.
But mainly I remember what Kirby said about regret -- that he alternately regretted everything and nothing. I am certainly as flawed as he was, more flawed. My life since birth has been a series of mainly unhappy relationships with both genders, well symbolized by that glancing away I experienced with Kirby -- never quite connecting. I regret almost all of them, sorry that I couldn't be more for some people, sorry above all that I've never been "nice," that like Kirby and his cancer, I never wanted to talk about the wound afflicting my own heart. That wound's cure -- the unbroken gaze of love -- was scarier than enduring the ongoing pain of disconnection.
So Kirby leaves me with the image of a broken heart, its blood spilling into the lungs, suffocating life -- blood that turns transparent and becomes tears, salty and stinging, and then ash, and then memory and nostalgia. And regret. Goodbye, Kirby. We had fun.
Cliff Bostock is in private practice. Reach him at 404-525-4774 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
@ JF Williams "And now I have even more of a reason to totally ignore…
If only he'd continued to throw strikes the way he tweets.
Wow! Look what I missed...didn't miss anything I was at the beach. I burned gas…
At-large voting is a crock and a crime when it's conducted this way. Get rid…
If it is John Rocker writing the tweets they are pretty good.