Mike Eddy — laughing, of course
The phrase echoed down to the depths of my soul, not just when I first heard the news, but every time I heard it and every time I had to say those words, breaking the bitter news to another friend. The look of shock, then disbelief and then horror each time chipped away at me like devastating aftershocks of a deadly cataclysm.
Just the sound of that phrase made me want 2 things equally: to be the next friend to die so that I would never again hear that about another friend; or to outlive all my friends so they would never have to hear that about me.
Mike & I had been planning to go down to my relatives’ beach house starting that week to re-roof the place, giving us both a place to live for the rest of the winter and some cash as well. Now, I couldn’t do the roofing without Mike, and friends worried about me going there by myself after Mike’s death. To me, it seemed like the only place in the world to go.
On the way there, I stayed at my family’s house in Houston, still just reeling from the shock of it. My parents were sympathetic and concerned about me, of course, but after a week of friends and the funeral, everything rang hollow. Until I wandered into Granny’s apartment there and her eyes met mine as she said, “I’m sorry about your friend.” The look in her eyes said more than that simple phrase. I felt her feeling me hurting, with that look of longing to take someone’s pain away for them. Granny connected more directly with my grief than anyone else had — including me.
So I headed down solo to the winter beach cabin. Roomy and open by design for summer use, it proved impossible to really heat. I spent days inside in my jacket and ran the oven at least 2-3 hours a day. I would take a couple of hot baths daily, the last one in the evening before hopping under the mountains of bedcovers I had built on the one bed closest to the space heater in the whole cabin.
Night after night, I laid in the dark, cold cabin along the deserted winter coast and stared at the blue flame of that space heater. A space heater had killed Mike, asphyxiating him in a small room overnight. He’d been so proud of swapping minimal maintenance tasks for free rent in a former storage closet in a small, old set of apartments near campus. No one had ever lived there before, but it had a bathroom and Mike bragged on never really having to do anything except change light bulbs to pay his rent. I’d just been there a week before, shaking my head at his tight accommodations, little dreaming that they would kill him shortly.
Now, the open beach cabin was different so I was at no risk. But there I was dependent upon my friend’s killer to keep me from freezing, staring into its face nightly, even when I was so exhausted i was unable to close my eyes. I have no idea how I got any rest the first weeks.
About a month later, I headed back to the family homestead in Houston, picking up some cash from them for odd jobs: replacing my brother’s car’s starter (using explicit instructions and diagrams from our dad) and Granny-sitting. Usually, I did this when my parents needed to head out of town, but this time, Granny needed someone there due to a phlebitis flare-up confining her to a recliner. Though she had relied on a cane to walk for years, this further confinement insulted her independence, bringing out part of her ornery nature.
I walked in one mid-morning to see her slumped to one side, slack-jawed and staring straight ahead. She did not respond to my voice or even gently shaking her. Looking back, I now know I was seeing the signs of a stroke. But back then, I felt I was watching her die before my very eyes.
I called my dad and he called an ambulance. I rode along in the ambulance with Granny to the downtown Houston hospital, still not understanding what was happening, not knowing if Granny was dying or not.
Granny Tilly, post-stroke
Well, she survived that stroke and lived several years more. We had many more hours to share before we would have to say good-bye.
In retrospect, I see these two episodes as parentheses, a couplet of verse almost, contrasting Mike’s early and unexpected death with Granny surviving a while longer despite her age and infirmity.
As harsh a lesson as it was — costing me the loss of my friend — it awakened me to the need of being aware of the people in your life at all times: especially right now, since that’s the only time we really have.
We are all temporary here.