“He’s gone”. “We’ve lost Jerry” was the news. The shocking news, really. He died suddenly and unexpectedly. I actually felt myself not being able to breathe. Tears came welling up, but couldn’t find a way out. My heart hurt. I got up and walked through the office building and realizing that the other 80 people didn’t know, didn’t care, couldn’t care, and their lives were going on as if nothing had happened. Actually nothing had happened in their lives. None of them knew Jerry. Life in the office was going on as usual for everyone except me in that moment. I’m not sure anyone, no matter how close they might be to me, can really know that place inside where another once occupied, and is now gone.
A couple of days after what was to be a routine surgical procedure, it seems that his body just collapsed from the inside out, unrelated to the surgery, and though he rushed to the hospital, they couldn’t save him. I had known and been friends with Jerry, his wife and members of his family for decades.
For some reason he liked me, and said so about twenty years ago. I was sort of surprised the day he said that to me. I didn’t really know what he meant or where that was coming from and knew better than to ask. We used to meet for lunch at his factory. We took turns supplying the food – always BBQ from the “Perfect Pig”. Other times we would meet at his house, a “men’s only” thing, for our breakfast of bagels and cream cheese. I would bring him his sesame seed bagel and he would provide the trimmings.
As a young boy he had survived polio, but just barely. When I met him the consequences of that disease had limited him to motoring around on one of his special scooters. One of the things we had shared was a lifetime living in very close proximity to our own chronic illnesses and near-death experiences that comes along with that closeness. His was polio and mine hemophilia. We never really talked about it. We didn’t need to. We had both lived through our own versions and knew what the other had experienced. A bit like war veterans who “just know”.
He loved his family and from time to time would ask advice of how to have a better relationship with one or the other. We pondered the big questions, the questions that I don’t believe either of us talked about with anyone else. The little questions too. I was as curious as a little kid about what his being a part of this life for fifteen years more than I had taught him that I was yet to learn. He was curious about what I thought I knew about human nature. It was sort of like we were living out our own version of the best-selling book by Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie.
He mentored me, as much as I knew how to let him, in how to run a business. I mentored him in how to better love his family. When we moved our business to Tennessee he helped make that happen. Without him and his wife’s support, I am not sure we could have been successful in that transition.
I would always contact him on his birthday. He would always be grateful. It was hard for him to say tender things, hard for him to use terms of endearment, and I’m guessing not only with me. The evening of his death, his wife said that he had lots of acquaintances but very few friends, and that I was one of them. I didn’t really know that.
The day before his surgery I called to find out how he was doing and wish him well. At the end of the conversation I broke one of the unspoken rules he and I had between us. I said Jerry, “I want you to know that I love you”. There was a sustained silent pause, a couple of throat clearings, and what sounded like an embarrassed “I love you too”. Those were the last words that passed between us. Seventy-two hours later he was gone.
Fifteen years ago I spoke those very same “I love you” words to my dad. He was a lot like Jerry in the realm of expressing terms of endearment. As with Jerry, those were the last words that ever passed between us. I think that led me at some subconscious level to take the risk with my friend Jerry, and violate the taboo between us. I am so glad I did. That makes one less regret in my life.
What a gift.