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June 19, 2014

A MISSING FRIEND

 

My high school class is having its fifty-year reunion this weekend. This will be the first reunion at which I won’t be able to pal around with my old friend Chuck.

 

Chuck and I became friends in eighth grade. He was “Charlie” then. He switched to “Chuck,” thinking it sounded more solid, when he started his career as a lawyer. Chuck had been the new kid who transferred in from another school and I was picked to show him around. After school that first day, we had Cokes at the Woolworth’s soda fountain and became buddies—for what turned out to be life. Through high school, college, each other’s weddings, the family years, career arcs, and mutual rescues in rocky times—we bantered and jaunted and laughed our way through the vicissitudes of life.

 

We had a fund of stories that kept us laughing at ourselves. We had played in the drum section of the high school marching band and there was the time that we propelled the band up the field at double tempo for a halftime show at a football game. We had just wanted to liven things up. After serving a brief suspension we were ordered to make a public apology to the rest of the band. I should have known then that Chuck would become a lawyer. I made a long, heartfelt statement. Then Chuck stood up, said, “Me too,” and sat down. Never admit to nuthin’.

 

For sheer knuckleheadedness, there was the time we stood on the bridge over the river in our hometown watching the flood waters rise, realizing just in time that our means of retreat at each end of the span was slowly being cut off. We had to work our way up the aptly named Water Street clutching the tops of parking meters as water spilled over the tops of our hip boots.

 

In college Chuck went on a daylong fund-raising hike for charity. By the time he got back to his dorm his feet were so blistered he couldn’t walk. When he learned the girl he was dating had been in a car crash and was in the hospital in a neighboring town, he insisted he had to see her. Another friend and I carried him to the highway and we hitchhiked to the hospital. Turned out the girl had been out on a date with someone else, and that someone else was also right there in the hospital. Uh, oh. By then it was dark and no motorist was fool enough to pick up two guys carrying another one, even if we were fool enough to try. We found a taxi willing to take us back. Then we had to race door to door in the dorm to raise the cash to pay the fare.

 

Years later, when we were living in the same city, I moved my writing office into the building that Chuck owned, where he had his law firm. We both took care of business, but if you couldn’t have fun along the way, what was the point? We often goofed off at lunch (our “Spam Fest” never received the acclaim we felt it deserved), or lifted weights in the basement gym (taking ourselves soooo seriously that it became amusement for the rest of the building), or sneaked off for a day of R&R at Inner Harbor, the Quarterback Club lunch at Penn State, or browsing used-book shops. We were known to play tennis at 6 a.m.

 

“What ho, lad?” Chuck would say, poking his head into my work space in the morning.

 

“What ho yourself, lad?” I would reply.

 

I’m not sure why or how that exchange started, but I believe the turn of phrase came from P. G. Wodehouse’s comic Bertie Wooster novels. And we were always “lads,” a way, perhaps, of mocking the years that had begun to roll by.

 

Eventually I moved my office for business reasons, but I was still nearby and we remained close. Even so, much of what happened in the closing days of Chuck’s life I can only guess at. Chuck was a supremely self-confident individual who believed he could master any situation, and he kept his cards close, even with old friends. He compartmentalized his life; some of those compartments were known only to him.

 

In his final year, Chuck was obviously ill, but also adamantly unwilling to take advice or seek help. He behaved erratically and was in physical decline. His breathing was labored and he had little stamina. We would occasionally meet at a Chinese restaurant for lunch, but the distance he was able to walk shrank month by month. He was estranged from his wife by then and had moved into an apartment on the third floor of his office building. He lost focus. His practice fell into neglect. Clients fled. His finances tanked. June, one of his older sisters, finally strong-armed him into submitting to medical treatment. He was diagnosed with drastic heart problems, including a damaged heart valve that needed to be replaced. He underwent extensive surgery in Baltimore. According to June, the doctors said that if he had waited even a few days longer, he would have died.

 

But his recovery stalled almost immediately after he came back from Baltimore. He had complications and went into a local hospital. Once released, he insisted on being delivered by ambulance to the apartment in his office building. He declared he could look after himself. Denny, another old friend from high school, was alarmed by his condition and came to stay with him temporarily. Chuck ignored his doctor’s orders to walk, to move. He just sat in his chair. He even slept sitting up in the chair. He looked and acted like a man who had lost the will to fight. June managed to get him into a rehab hospital. From there he was transferred to a nursing home.

 

It was the morning of the first Wednesday in July 2010 when June called to tell me that Chuck had died. I had gotten into the habit of stopping to see him in the nursing home on Wednesday afternoons. I usually took him a Hershey Bar; it sometimes cheered him up a little. “His heart just gave out,” June said. “The nurses tried to revive him, but he was gone.” 

 

I’m told that our class has lost ten members, including Chuck, since the last reunion five years ago. They will all be missed. I’ll especially miss being greeted with “What ho, lad?”

 

© Donald C. Sarvey & Editorial Enterprises, Inc.

 

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