I’ve learned about the deaths of two friends recently. One was of a friend I hadn’t been in touch with for years. The other was a friend I had recently visited with.
Let’s start with Jim Standish, the unintentionally estranged friend. I met him on the Internet while in college. I posted a question about poetry to a newsgroup dedicated to the topic, and he sent me sort of an ornery response, figuring I was either a troll or a person who wanted easy answers without any hard work. And he was justified generally speaking, as such characters were in abundance. I replied to him intelligently and courteously and a friendship was born. For several years while I was in college and for a year or so afterward, we maintained a vaguely literary correspondence that I think benefitted both of us. He was a good guy, gentle and humanitarian. We dropped the correspondence gradually as, thrust into the real world from out of academia, I had less time for literary endeavors and we had less immediately in common. I looked Jim up on the Web a couple of months ago and learned that he had died, I believe of cancer. He was in the neighborhood of 70 at the time. A high school acquaintance aside, he was the first person I had a real attachment to who died. Jim had sent me several of his self-published books of poetry over the years, and I got them all out and picked through them again, remembering fondly how jolly he was and sadly what a void his absence must have left for those who knew him well.
The other friend was Fred Venditti, also in his seventies. Fred I knew in person. Old as he was getting, he could still hike a trail in the Smoky Mountains and lead a raucous discussion about one of his favorite topics of group discussion, educational philosophy. You couldn’t help but think of a Norman Rockwell-style painting when you saw Fred, with his swept-back glossy white hair and his grandfatherly look. Neither my wife nor I knew our grandfathers very well, and though Fred was no surrogate (we were beyond the point of intense grandfather adulation when we met him, I think), we did in a way look up to him as a benevolent and respected grandfatherly figure. But there was more to it than that. Nearly three times my age, he took me seriously and took a real interest in me as a person, as an equal. One of our first long exchanges was at a camping trip we attend annually in Alabama. I was a relatively new member of the circle of friends that introduced me to Fred, and he was eager to learn more about me. He perked up when he learned that I had studied literature and writing in college. He too was interested in writing, had a book in the works, and had several memoirs in a drawer. He proposed that we occasionally exchange work to critique, but we never managed it. Fred wound up in the last few months being diagnosed with brain cancer. He had taken a fall, and his wife got home shortly thereafter and found him lying on the ground immobile. He confessed afterward that he had been afraid he had been displaying symptoms of Parkinsons, but the doctor visit after the fall produced the more immediately damaging diagnosis. We visited him a couple of times during the last months of his life. He was always his typical gregarious, debonair self. Paralyzed down one side of his entire body, he would sit and entertain friends, spreading about his usual witty banter, his eyes twinkling. He asked me once during a visit how my writing had been coming. I had forgotten about our exchange a couple of years ago and was surprised and pleased that he remembered it. His novel was finally going to press, he told me. Fred’s hanging onto this little detail about a long-ago conversation is what I think best characterizes him: He was a person who bothered to remember the things important to others however incidental they were to his own life. He lost that life about two weeks ago amid his family. I sure hate that he’s gone, though I’m glad his suffering (and his family’s) was short and that he went out peacefully and surrounded by the people his gracious life had attracted to him.