Around the Bend, Delaplane, 2010
An old friend of mine has fallen out of touch.
This shouldn’t be cause for alarm. It happens all the time. People get busy. They get distracted. They need some time off.
But there are some people I worry about when they disappear. They’re the ones who are dealing with marital or relationship issues, depression, codependency, career stagnation and failure. I’m no expert, but I think women can talk about these things a lot easier than men. We guys define ourselves too much by our positions, particularly what we do for a living. When that position is pulled out from underneath us like a slippery rug, some of us just step back to firmer ground. Others take a big fall. It’s even worse when you’re in your late fifties and the opportunities that once seemed boundless are harder to see and the doors that were always open look closed.
I try to be a good friend to friends who are falling. Sometimes that means being a good listener. Sometimes it means telling them to “Shake the f--- out of it!” And sometime it means just leaving them alone until they grow up some.
This all came to a head for me about fifteen years ago when one of my best friends from college committed suicide. The friend had been in much personal and professional turmoil—most of it, admittedly, of his own making—but I thought he was beginning to find some firm footing. He’d re-established contact. He was taking interest in a new job. He and his girlfriend had been down to visit us for a couple of weekends at the beach. All in all, my wife and I were beginning to feel pretty good about his condition. Then I got the early morning phone call announcing his death.
As those of us who’d know this friend in college sat around a restaurant table after the funeral deconstructing the last year of our deceased pal’s life, it was like a scene from The Big Chill. No one of us knew the whole story of his last year. But when we put our stories together the only question was why he hadn’t taken this terrible action sooner.
This all took place about the time Calvin Trillin’s book Remembering Denny came out. Trillin’s book examined how the “golden boy” of his class at Yale—a young man with looks, smarts, charm and all the success that they could create when combined—had come to take his life at age 55.
The combination of my friend’s death and Trillin’s books led me to pledge to never knowingly let a friend in such turmoil go unnoticed or untended. Since then I’ve stepped into several friends’ lives when it seemed they were about to go over the edge. I don’t have any special talent in this area. I couldn’t fix them or their problems. All I could do was be present for them. In two cases I think this might have made a difference. However, you never really know, and if you’re going to do it you have to go into such situations knowing that you can’t take personally what they decide to do.
And so it is that I’ll spend some time today tracking down this most recent friend who’s gone missing. He told me a while back he was thinking about going up to his sister’s farm in New England for a while. Maybe I’ll find him there, milking cows or painting barns. It doesn’t really matter what he’s going, only that he hasn’t given up.