Norbert Brown made a conscious decision not to stop for death. But now he’s wondering why.
I was at work the day my father died.
I had a meeting with an ad agency that morning. They were doing a big presentation, and I was the primary decision-maker. We had plans to go to lunch with them and I headed back to my office to drop off the presentation book before we left. My voicemail light was lit and even though I knew what the message probably was because my father had been sick for a while, and although I didn’t want to hear it, I punched my code in and listened.
Norb, it’s mom. I just wanted to tell you – dad died at 9:48 this morning. Call me when you can.
So I was at a decision point. I could announce to everyone that I’d be leaving, that my dad died and I was going to head home. Everyone would understand and there would be great sympathizing and hugging, possibly even a few tears.
Or, I could go out to lunch. Then after I’d said my goodbyes to the agency people and gone back to my office, I could say the call had just come in and quietly slip away.
I executed plan B, and went out to lunch.
That was almost 16 years ago, and from time to time I’ve reflected on the action I took. Sometimes I think I was just being practical – wrapping up the meeting with a lunch was, after all, my job. And besides, this was my loss, my grief. Putting it into a box until later was my right – I didn’t have to trot it out in front of my employees and my vendor.
But other times, I wonder just exactly what’s wrong with me. This was my father, one of the most important people in my life. We’d certainly had our ups and downs, he and I, but I loved him and he loved me. By the time I visited him the last time in the hospital, we’d arrived at a comfortable, even companionable peace. This was one of those big moments – not just the end of a chapter but the closing of an entire volume of my life story. It was a moment with import, with weight. I should have been wailing, inconsolable – or at the very least shut down in some kind of anguished paralysis. But no, I went out and made small talk at lunch.
In time, I grieved. But I did it quietly and privately, by myself and with my family. And eventually I let myself off the hook and accepted that I did what I did, I had good reason for doing it, and it didn’t make me an unfeeling bastard.
Then last week it happened again.
I was in a client’s office, turning my computer on to retrieve a message from my inbox. When I opened my mail program a new email popped up: it was from my sister and the subject line was “Wayne Johnson Death Notice.”
I gasped a little before I was able to contain my reaction, but if my client noticed she didn’t let on. I scrolled down to the email I needed to show her, and got on with the meeting. And got on with my day. And though I stopped to read the death notice, and there were many things in that one short paragraph that troubled me, I just kept going because that’s what you do.
Wayne Johnson was my most constant friend from the time I was about seven years old, all the way through high school. He was a couple of years older, so there were months and seasons when our age difference made us incompatible and we’d drift apart, but we always came back together. I’m honestly not sure he cared as much about being my best friend as he did about being best friends with my family. There were a lot of us and the house was always noisy and busy, and my mother laughed and said nice things to you. Wayne lived with a quiet, brow-beaten father and an actual honest-to-God wicked stepmother. He had one sister, but she’d already left for nursing school while we were still little boys. An afternoon at our house was like spending a day on the set of The Brady Bunch; an hour at the Johnsons’ was like spending a week in a tomb.
All of this happened a long time ago, before the invention of gaydar. But even though we didn’t know why, we could see that Wayne never seemed comfortable in his own skin. In high school he had a desperate need to fit in, but he always looked like somebody playing a part. He was always trying to be one of the gang, and always somehow an outsider, alone and separate.
Through college, and into our early 20s, Wayne and I kept in touch sporadically. We always promised not to let so much time pass between meetings, but the times got longer and longer. Wayne got a job for a big computer company. He moved to Boston, then to Minneapolis. He called me once when my wife and I were living in New York and said he was coming to town for a conference, and we went out to dinner. That was around 1986 or 87. By that time the question running through my mind wasn’t “Is Wayne gay?” it was “Is Wayne out?” He never was though, not to me anyway. That was the last time I saw him.
Wayne’s death notice said he died “suddenly in his home in Atlanta” in October of 2009. It was a shock that he’d died, a shock he’d died suddenly and most of all a shock he’d died almost five years ago. The list of survivors included his sister and some nieces and nephews, but no partner. Then the last line of the notice says “Donations may be made in Wayne’s name to the AIDS Research Consortium of Atlanta.”
I don’t know how or why Wayne died “suddenly” and it’s unfair and ghoulish to speculate. I can’t assume he had AIDS because that was his charity of choice – he might have lost someone to the disease.
I do know that my childhood friend died and I hadn’t seen him in more than 25 years. I think he might have been sick, and I fear he was alone. I feel this sense of loss that I can’t understand, because it’s as though I’m claiming that I lost someone I let go of a quarter century ago. But my relationship with Wayne feels like an unfinished sentence, it feels like a question that drifts out into the air, forever unanswered.
But I go on with my day, with my week, with my life, because that’s what you do. I tuck the sadness, the speculation and the regret into the little pockets of time between the meetings and the errands.
And I sit here and write tonight, for Wayne, for my father, for the others I’ve lost, because I want to say to them: You mattered. You touched my life. We laughed and we fought and it was real and it was so very important. I can’t stop and wail and call out your name – I wish I could but I have too many things to do. But you mattered. You are remembered and loved and part of me forever.
Photo: averagjane / flickr