Traveling Along the River

On August 4, I lost my friend Mario to cancer. He was the third friend of mine to die of the disease this year. His death wasn’t unexpected. He was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer in July 2021, and the last time I saw him, this past April at another friend’s funeral, I barely recognized him. Still, Mario was one of those larger-than-life people you can’t imagine not being in the world.

Without meaning to, Mario became the center of attention in any room he walked into. He was intelligent, talented, had dozens of friends, and a heart big enough to make Santa Claus jealous. I met Mario more than 30 years ago, when I was 18, when we were both freshman in college—kids. We didn’t see each other all the time, but it’s still hard for me to imagine my life as an adult without him in it.

I was in the middle of working on developmental edits for my second novel, The River Is Everywhere, when Mario died. (The book will be released in March 2023 by Vine Leaves Press.) Before sitting down to work on it near the end of July, it had been more than a year since I’d looked at the manuscript. The book’s main character, Ernest, is a 16-year-old high school student who loses his best friend in an accident. He spends much of the story trying to make sense of his friend’s death.

I wrote the book years ago, before any of my friends had cancer, before I could have imagined any of them ever meeting such terrible fates. And yet, when I was re-reading the manuscript, I found myself drawn into Ernest’s world: Here was someone who was dealing with the some of same feelings that I was. The fact that I had made Ernest and his story up didn’t seem to matter at all.

As hard as it was at times to motivate myself to get my butt in the chair, working on the book helped me begin to heal from the loss of my friends in ways I hadn’t expected. At its heart, the novel is a coming-of-age tale and adventure story. When I wrote it, helping readers deal with loss and grief wasn’t one of my intentions.

I suppose that’s one of the things that makes art so important: Often, it’s much more powerful and meaningful than it appears on the surface.

This experience has made me hope that someday The River Is Everywhere might help someone else in the same way it’s helped me.

ENP

Black Tower

Old friends and old wine are best. —German Proverb

I’ve been fortunate to have many good friends throughout my life. Memories of wild parties, road trips, quiet conversations, long hikes in the woods, and afternoon barbecues that lasted into the night help me cope when life gets difficult. Friends have steadied the ladders I’ve had to climb in order to grow and evolve as a person. They’ve made me laugh when I thought nothing in the world was funny, and have sometimes been the mirror I needed in order to see my true self.

Most of the time, I don’t think about the innumerable ways my life is interconnected with the lives of my friends. Like most people who have careers and families, much of my time is spent trying to keep up with my work schedule and make sure the bills get paid. All too often, there’s little time left in the day for my husband or myself, never mind anyone else.

An old friend of mine died recently. Annette’s death was sudden and unexpected, an immeasurable loss that no one who knew her was prepared to face. She was one of the most giving, selfless people I’ve had the pleasure to know, who never failed to offer words of encouragement to anyone who needed them. She was never afraid to stand up for herself or give someone an honest opinion, even if she knew they wouldn’t like it.

Mainstream media outlets have published several articles recently offering tips, and even step-by-step instructions, on how to make friends. People hire friendship coaches to help them figure out how to start conversations at social gatherings. If you type “making friends” into the search bar on YouTube you get several hundred results.

You can also download free friend-making apps to your phone. Applications like Bumble, Friended, and Wink help users meet likeminded people, and guide them through potentially awkward social situations.

Maybe the reason all this is necessary has something to do with COVID-19. Or perhaps it’s because most people younger than 40 grew up interacting with other human beings online rather than in person. It could also be due to the fact that contemporary American culture values individualism so strongly, effectively causing many of us to compartmentalize our lives whether we mean to or not.

Annette and I met at a party when we were in our mid-twenties. She had recently started dating a college friend of my soon-to-be-husband’s and mine. On a warm spring afternoon a few weeks later, we invited them to our apartment.

Annette and I dragged a pair of plastic lounge chairs onto the lawn of our building. We polished off an economy-size bottle of Black Tower riesling, got terrible sunburns, dished up dirt, and laughed all afternoon. It’s a day that stands out in my memory as one of the best. Even though it was decades ago, it seems like it could have been yesterday.

Our children grew up together. I never thought twice about digging through the drawers in Annette’s kitchen to look for a spatula or a Ziplock bag. Although we saw each other less often as we got older and busier, our families always got together around the holidays. One Christmas several years ago, Annette gave me an ornament made from a Black Tower wine label. It still makes me smile every year when I hang it on our tree.

In the days that followed Annette’s passing, I texted or called several of our mutual friends, many of them people I hadn’t seen or talked to in years. Although the reason I got in touch was to let them know what had happened, over the course of our conversations we updated one another about our lives, made lunch plans, and swapped photographs of our kids, pets, and vegetable gardens.

My husband and I stayed up half the night thumbing through old photo albums, looking for pictures to post on Annette’s memorial website. Looking at photographs of our younger selves, together with our friends, made me realize that a hole had opened up in our lives, one that used to be full the hugs, laughter, and steadfast support of people we loved. Over time, we’d become so wrapped up in our everyday existence that we had let that well run dry.

The first tip given by an article on WikiHow titled Easy Ways to Make Friends is, “Make yourself available. If you want to make friends, you first need to put yourself out there.”

Annette’s memorial service was on a Saturday. In order to attend, my husband and I had to cancel a weekend trip we’d planned to celebrate our wedding anniversary. It was disappointing, and heartbreakingly sad. But as soon as we entered the funeral home, our old friends greeted us with open arms.

In May 1918, President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech in New York City in support of the Red Cross. It was less than a year after the U.S. had entered World War I and at the onset of the Spanish flu pandemic. In it he said, “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.”

True friendship has the power to heal. Whether we make friends at parties, on Facebook, or with the help of an app, more than a hundred years later Wilson’s words hold true, perhaps now more than ever.

ENP

Kill Your Bucket List

American jazz musician and composer, Miles Davis, once said, “Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.” In a world where many people can’t afford to feed their kids, statements like this used to make my eyes roll. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to agree with him.

Over the past couple of months, two close friends of mine from college have been diagnosed with cancer. Neither of their prognoses are good. Because the three of us are the same age, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things I still want to accomplish in my life, as well as about the ways in which I spend my time.

Like many people, for most of my adult life I’ve had a “bucket list” mentality. That is the tendency to divide the things I need or want to do into two categories: “things I have to get done now” and “things I plan to do at some later time.” The former category usually includes tasks like writing magazine articles, grocery shopping, and folding the laundry, while the second encompasses activities like hiking in Scotland, reading the stack of novels on my bedside table, visiting old friends, and finally finishing the three book manuscripts currently living on my hard drive.

I never saw a problem with this until recently. When, after all, is “later?” And what would I have to show for myself, and my life, if I were suddenly diagnosed with a terminal illness, unable to walk or talk or write another word? The answer, of course, is not the one I want.

The good news is that I still have time (knock on wood). I’m in the process of trying to figure out what work I can afford to turn down, and what household chores I can put off or delegate in order to make my bucket list my to-do list.

I don’t think it will be easy. It’s difficult to break old habits. And it’s even harder to ignore the voice in my head that tells me I’m being irresponsible if I choose to hike up a mountain instead of mowing the lawn.

Miles Davis died suddenly at the age of 65. It’s something that happens all the time. On an intellectual level, we know we are finite. But ours is a culture that eschews talking or even thinking about death. I think we need to start, though. Admitting to ourselves that we won’t be here forever, on a daily basis if necessary, is the best way I can think of to get the really important stuff done.

ENP