Decades ago, in an ancient, narrow brick building on City College’s south campus, Wagner Hall, I think, an annex to the grand Mott Hall, if I recall correctly, (both most likely demolished and replaced by now) I took some philosophy courses. In one of these classes the professor told us that to get into the philosopher’s club in ancient Athens a person was required to stand on a certain corner and, for one hour, not think of a polar bear (I never stopped to think how ancient Athenians would have known about polar bears). The point was that this was a test to see if your mind was mature and disciplined enough to contemplate more important things and not be distracted by trivia, such as a random distraction it was useless to think about. It was this kind of thing that drew me to philosophy, though, I have to say, of all the things I have read, philosophy was always the most poorly written. Of course, philosophical treatises are full of uniquely complicated ideas badly translated, I never read Plato in the Greek or Kant in German. It would have all been Greek to me anyway, as they say.
I’m thinking about this today because I’ve had some recent conversations during which, so long as I don’t ask the wrong question, often a very obvious one, everything is jolly and carefree. I offer the example of a talk I had after the recent death of my old friend Les. I’ll be writing and posting a little homage to Les soon. Meantime, I learned of his death from some texts and emails the other night, sent and forwarded by an estranged friend, the widow of my dear friend Howie Katz, who died in 2010, shortly before my mother did. It was Les, in fact, who called to give me the awful news about Howie. In contrast to my mother’s long decline and struggle against death, Howie went out in a moment, painlessly, in his prime, like a candle flame winking out in a soft breeze. While waiting at a red light at the bottom of a ramp a moment after exiting a freeway in East Bay.
I spoke to his wife fairly often in the weeks, months and years after Howie died. It was my way of honoring my friendship with a beautiful soul, doing my best to help look after the person he loved the most, his wife Jackie. She was in great pain and we would speak for hours at a time. I live almost 3,000 miles from her (2,575), so these long phone calls were the closest I could come to visits. Her pain focused on her isolation, how all of their good friends seemed to be avoiding her, as well as her ongoing, worsening troubles at work. I listened with sympathy, condemning the friends she was angry at, agreeing that her longtime rival at work, Craig, was an evil bastard and that the rest of the hierarchy there who took his side, and kept promoting him, were spineless weasels. Our talks kept to this format, after a quick back and forth about what was new in our lives I’d settle into listening to her detailed grievances and giving her support.
I was unable to be at Howie’s funeral, but I made sure to be at his unveiling (the ceremony in which the deceased’s gravestone is “unveiled”) a year later. I helped Jackie shop for and prepare the food that would be served afterwards. Exhausted after a short night’s sleep the night I arrived, I got up early, went on a shopping trip and helped out the best I could. Preparing cucumbers and tomatoes for an Israeli salad (also known as a Lebanese salad, Palestinian salad, Turkish salad, etc. — just add minced garlic amd lemon juice) I sat in a chair in her kitchen. She told me real chefs don’t sit, they stand, and then critiqued the size of the cubes I was cutting, way too big! Howie found pleasure in serving and helping others, doing whatever they needed to feel comfortable. I don’t have Howie’s grace, and probably muttered as I stood up, after protesting that I was not a real chef, and cut each of my cubes into four. Aside from that, she was gracious about my help, I suppose.
Where Howie was gregarious, Jackie is mostly private. Where Howie was outgoing, irreverent and sometimes hilarious, Jackie is not prone to reaching out to or entertaining others. I’ve seen the kind of isolation in widowhood Jackie went through with other couples, including my parents. After the death of the more socially adept partner, friends of the couple begin drifting away. I did not want Howie’s wife to feel this distance from me. I’d been their guest many times, loved Howie, had always had a good relationship with Jackie, who is very smart and used to have (at any rate, I remember it) a good sense of humor and a hearty laugh.
Over the years, it got harder and harder. One thing that grated on Sekhnet (who also loved Howie and accepted Jackie for the sake of Howie) was Jackie’s ingratitude, or to put it more charitably, her difficulty expressing gratitude. The hardest I ever worked was the week I spent before her daughter’s wedding, playing the guitar seven to ten hours a day to come up with arrangements, and making sure I was able to execute all the parts flawlessly every time, to be a one man band behind my friend who was playing the melodies on harmonica or sax. The music came off great on the day of the wedding. The bride, who’d asked us to play, which honored us greatly, hugged us and thanked us afterwards. Jackie never said anything. I understood finally that she is probably on the Asperger’s spectrum. Eventually, after several more attempts to keep our relationship alive over the next few years, I succumbed to the numbness of unrequited friendship.
When all the texts and emails came in from her about Les being in his final hours the other night (she’d also waited til Rom was in a coma to inform me, by text, that he was in the hospital) I began responding to Jackie’s “this is not good” text when I hit dial instead and a moment later was speaking to her.
We commiserated about our friend until, about five minutes in, Jackie began telling me of her recent struggles and sorrows, she’d had a stroke — which I hadn’t ever inquired about, or even seemed to know about — and then she told the detailed story of her father’s death, at 99, how badly he’d wanted to make it to 100 and how much harder it was for everybody that his death happened during Covid. The pain to her sister, who’d been forced to attend the funeral over Zoom, was something she and her sister were having a very hard time with. We spoke for about a half hour, or rather, she spoke and I responded sympathetically. It was as if we’d talked the week before.
The polar bear popped into my head and I asked the obvious question: We’re having a perfectly amiable chat, why is it that we haven’t talked in more than five years?
“You stopped talking to me,” she said.
I recounted the half dozen attempts I’d made to show her friendship in recent years. Exerting myself to meet her whenever she was in NY, in spite of only finding out about each of her trips once she was days from leaving NY. Making plans, two weeks in advance, to stay with her for a couple of days during my last visit to San Francisco, plans she cancelled as I was literally blocks from her house with my overnight bag.
“I don’t remember any of that, because of the stroke,” she said.
“So what gives you the idea that I stopped talking to you?” I asked.
“Because you stopped talking to me. Marilyn told me that you stopped talking to me,” she said.
If I hadn’t asked the obvious question, I’d never have known, or even suspected, that it was me, once more, completely in the wrong.