Friday, August 6, 2010

Goodbye, Old Friend

I got some news today that I was not anxious to receive.

In the internet age, news travels faster than it ever has. Such speed is a mixed blessing at times. Sometimes it's wrong — and sometimes you hope it is wrong.

And today I got some news that I hoped would be wrong — but I knew, deep down, that it wasn't. When I saw the e–mail in my inbox, all I could see was a name. But I just had a sinking feeling ...

A dear friend of mine, someone I have known since the sixth grade, has passed away.

Her name was Phyllis, and she had many talents, many gifts. She was a great scholar, knowledgeable about so many subjects. She was a talented musician. I will always remember the mostly friendly rivalry she and her good friend Cindy had in academics and music, where they competed for first chair flute.

And she may have been the most devoted friend I will ever have.

We lost touch, as school chums often do, for many years, but we got reconnected on Facebook last year — and I will always be grateful for that. We got caught up, we "chatted" on occasion. Phyllis gave me a boost when I was feeling down, and I tried to do the same for her.

In fact, it was just about a year ago that I was called in for a promising job interview. Phyllis and I chatted about it online, then I felt inspired to write about my friend and my sense of optimism (which turned out to be misplaced, I guess, since I didn't get the job, but my feelings for Phyllis were genuine and definitely not misplaced).

A few days later, I felt inspired to write about her again. This time, I wrote about the love of her life. He did not come into her life until rather late, but he clearly completed her existence. He was her "other half," as the saying goes.

At one point in one of our conversations, we talked about significant others. I have never married, but Phyllis encouraged me to marry if I find someone. I told her I would even though I also told her that I think I have concluded that that isn't in the cards for me.

"I thought that about myself, too," Phyllis told me, "and then I met Hawk."

I think even Phyllis would agree that she was not a "classic beauty," but she was a beautiful person, and nearly a year ago, after we had been chatting online, I felt moved to write about beauty and Phyllis' relationship with her husband.

Here's an excerpt from that post, although I encourage you to read the whole thing:
"My friend has had some serious health problems in recent years, and she mentioned (in what I could only imagine were tones of amazement since the conversation was written and not spoken) that her husband 'thinks I am beautiful and sexy even when I know I can't possibly be.'

"That, it seems to me, is the definition of love — an attraction based not merely on physical desire but on other, more intangible factors.

"And, with all due respect to my friend, this isn't about what she thinks of herself. It's about what her husband thinks. If he thinks she is beautiful and sexy, she is. No one else's opinion matters."

It was like that when we were in high school in Arkansas, too. Phyllis was an inspiration to me when I was learning the craft of writing. I believe she inspired some of the best things I have ever written.

In the future, I hope her memory will continue to inspire me.

And I will always be thankful that she found a mate with whom she shared such a bond.

There are so many things that make me think of Phyllis. A few minutes ago, I was looking idly at my bookshelf, lost in thought, and my eyes came to rest on my paperback copy of "Gone With the Wind." It was one of Phyllis' favorite books when we were in school together — and I assume it remained one of her favorites. The film was one of her favorite films — in no small part because Clark Gable was one of her favorite actors.

Will I ever be able to watch that movie or read a passage from that book without thinking of Phyllis? I hope not.

Which reminds me ...

Back in the spring — perhaps it was in the late winter — we were chatting on Facebook. "The Purple Rose of Cairo" — one of my favorite Woody Allen movies — was being shown on cable that evening, and she told me she had never seen it. I encouraged her to switch it on. She didn't, but she said she would get it through Netflix and watch it. We never discussed it again. I guess, from time to time, I'll wonder if she ever saw that movie.

More memories keep flooding back.

We were raised in what was traditionally Democratic Arkansas, but, around the time that we met, it was a rough time to be a Democrat. Richard Nixon was about to bury George McGovern all across the country but his landslide in Arkansas was particularly stout. Phyllis and I had very Democratic parents who were bucking a very pronounced state trend by supporting McGovern. We knew we were outnumbered, and we formed a rather small alliance of like–minded friends at school in what we called the "McGovern Club."

As news of Phyllis' passing has been spreading today, a friend of mine named Doug, who was one of the charter members of that club, sent me an e–mail in which he said, "The McGovern Club is down to two members now. I'm sure Phyllis would want us to carry on (or she might kick me out of the club for supporting McCain last time.)"

I told my friend that Phyllis had told me that she, too, voted for McCain last time. And I told Phyllis that I voted for Nader. She said she was proud of me for voting my convictions.

I think Phyllis became a Republican when Reagan was president. I'm not sure when Doug became a Republican. And, about seven months ago, I wrote that I now consider myself an independent.

But, technically, Doug is right, I guess. I don't recall who the other members of the club were; I just recall that there were a few others. And, while some or all of them may still be alive and kicking, Phyllis, Doug and I were the primary members, I suppose. And now there are two.


I wish we had had more time, but I guess one always feels that way. It will have to be enough, I suppose, to be thankful for the fact that we reunited while we still could. Perhaps it will be a reminder to me in the future not to take anyone or anything for granted.

Phyllis had been suffering from colon cancer, which ultimately forced her to give up a job she loved and go on disability. And, although I don't have many details at this point, I presume it was the cancer that took her life. But it was my understanding, when she went into the hospital — what was it, several weeks? a few months? ago — that she had pneumonia.

Pneumonia is serious, of course, but it isn't generally fatal for people in our age group. So I was concerned. But I was also convinced that she would recover.

Then, a few weeks ago, I heard that she had been in the intensive care unit — and then I heard that she had been taken out of the ICU. Again, I thought she was on the mend.

But, apparently, I was wrong.

I can imagine all sorts of scenarios. And perhaps one day I will know the truth. But even if I learn the facts, it won't change the most important truth.

My friend is gone, far too soon.

Goodbye, Phyllis. I'll keep looking for my "other half."

And if I find her, my greatest regret will be that I won't be able to tell you about her.


Karen said...

This is a great tribute to Phyllis! I share a lot of the same memories of Phyllis from high school. I remember that no one could play the piccolo like she could - she made it sing! She was such a bubbly and positive person who always made me feel happy. We've definitely lost one of our bright lights - she will be missed.

David said...

Thank you, Karen.