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Ghosts

Posted by on November 4, 2015

Most mornings find me with our dog, Doc, hiking one trail or another in the hills around Ojai. Of course I do it to get Doc out, but I also do it to fight off the inevitable side effects of aging. Yet, walking is a reflective exercise, for the most part, particularly when walking alone. These past months I have rarely been alone, as I have had three old friends walking with me. Yet reflection remains part of the process.
I was in Lake Como, Italy, last month, enjoying Meredy’s sabbatical with her and a couple of dear friends. As everyone else napped after a long day of walking, I sat on the deck to enjoy the afternoon when a dose of reality crept up on me and pinned me to my chair. I realized that I had been carrying sadness with me for some months, like a small hole in my life, an emptiness. I knew and know that I have little reason to be unhappy. My life is wonderful. I love my wife and my family. I have all that I want or need. Here I am, vacationing in Italy, eating great food, drinking great wines, enjoying friendship and laughter, architecture and art…I am absolutely blessed. Perhaps it is turning 70 on this trip that is eating at me, that long shadow of mortality that is moving inexorably toward me. Well, there is some truth to that, but I know that I have had a good run. I have had my turn. I have known love, raised wonderful children, did work that made some difference in the world. I tend to look at the years ahead as bonus years.
No, my sadness has another source, one that is clear to me now. In the past year I lost three lifelong friends, men who I knew and loved for a collective total of over 100 years. Lane, was a man who worked with me side-by-side for over 25 years, a man who hiked over 1000 miles with me on the wilderness trails of the Sierras, guiding teenagers over the crags and passes of adolescence, teaching me laughter and loyalty. Unfortunately, he was better at caring for others than for himself.
Thom had been a friend and companion since we were 13 or so. We knew each other through our wildest years and were there for each other through our most challenging ones. Like Lane, he was a kind man and a loyal friend. Thom was also in the habit of walking his dog each morning, usually on the beaches of Santa Monica or the bluffs of Palisades Park, so I would hike to a particular bench in the mornings, meditate a little, and call Thom…me on a high Ojai trail; he on the beaches where we grew up and we would talk about our lives, our children, and old friends. Thom boarded a plane in November, just a few days after his birthday, settled into a first class seat, and died. I have taken to sitting on another bench in the mornings and I have not yet removed him from the auto-dial on my phone. In any conversation, his last words were always “I love you, pal” and I loved him. Some say that a true friend is one who knows you well and likes you anyway, and Thom certainly knew me, highs and lows, moments I now reflect upon in secret shame and moments of triumph…certainly moments of hilarity.
Robert was a psychiatrist. We met in a children’s theater production about 1980 and became fast friends. We would sit for hours around a wood burning stove, reflecting on life, on family, on careers, on the wages of success, and the price of contentment. We were, in many ways, each other’s therapists. In recent years, we took to hiking together, meeting each Thursday morning to meander up some local trail, sharing the highs and lows of our weeks, our hopes for our children, sometimes our various aches and pains, as aging folks are wont to do. In the last weeks of our hiking, Robert began to slow down. He became concerned that his stamina was waning and went in for some tests, which were inconclusive, then more tests and still more. Our hikes became short walks and then visits on his porch. Within five weeks he was gone. There is one loop that I now walk alone or with Meredy, which we call Robert’s trail and he is constantly with me as I walk. Like Lane, like Thom, I miss him so. I miss his voice and his love and his solid friendship. Like Thom and Lane, I cannot think of a time that he demanded anything of our friendship but my honesty, my loyalty, and my affection.
These are the ghosts that walk with me on the trail these days. My mother would advise me in her Irish way that “You reach a point in life when you have to keep your dark suit pressed.” She was buried on her 94th birthday, having seen pass all those that she knew and loved besides her own children: her parents, sibling, cousins, friends…all gone before her. So I know this is the way of things.
Yet, I have a question: As people who know us and our history begin to disappear, does some part of us begin to fade into obscurity? What part of me died with each of these men? What part of them remains alive in my mind and heart? Certainly that part accompanies me on my morning walks. I cannot hike with any weight on my back without thinking of Lane, his kindness, his laughter, his steadfastness. Thom resides on certain benches and beaches, a man who evolved with me into manhood. Robert walks beside me on the slow ascent up Rice canyon, his matter-of –fact advice and concern for me and my family, like an echo on the ridge.
Somehow it helps me to identify the loss that I am feeling, to know its genesis. Perhaps the emptiness is replaced by gratitude, by affection, by knowing that these men each chose to be a friend to me and thus formed me into something better. Yet, my world is certainly poorer in their absence, but such is the trail we are all on.

3 Responses to Ghosts

  1. Meredy Benson Rice

    What a thoughtful reflection. So sad. So true. I love you. xxx

  2. eileen

    I think when we’ve lost someone we really love, we have lost a part of who we are. I guess a part of our heart dies with them. But, what remains with us is probably exactly what they would want us to have. “This is the comfort of friends – that though they may be said to die, their friendship and society are in the best sense, ever present because immortal.” (William Penn, I think?)
    I love you Dennis!

  3. collie

    Dennis,
    To lose three good friends in one year is indeed a force of grief to be reckoned with.
    I’m so sorry for the loss you are feeling. Your reflection resonates with the power their friendships left upon you & it was beautiful to read.
    I believe that as long as we keep their memory & spirit alive in our mind and heart, they remain a piece of our life energy and inspiration. I see it as a connection we choose to foster.
    Does that sound koo-koo?
    love, Collie

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