Saturday, February 9, 2013
Today’s experience gave me much to think about. I attended a memorial service for a dear friend and I realized something I had shoved to the back of my mind for years. I’ve never given much thought to dying. Well, not since I came home from Vietnam. Over there, I thought about it about every day. Not in the sense that death was imminent, but only as a passing thought while flying a helicopter over rice paddies and through mountain passes, any of which might have harbored a determined Vietcong or enemy soldier with an AK-47 or a surface-to-air missile. But after forty-two years, I finally had to face what I had ignored for so long.
I had returned from Vietnam, married a wonderful girl, and settled down for a life of bliss. Well, for forty plus years, it has been pretty darned good, even a lovely daughter to show for it. But today, I sat through a trying hour and a half, wondering what I have done with my life and how people would remember it. As for my friend, it seemed like the more nice things people there said about him, the more I remembered what a great guy he was.
I had met him in graduate school at Oklahoma State University. I was a Vietnam veteran, had been married less than a year, and had returned to college for my masters degree in architectural engineering. Pat had just gotten out of the service and had returned to OSU to complete his bachelors’s degree in architectural engineering. We sat in some of the same architecture classes.
He and I hit it off right away, as though some strange force had brought us together. We were on the same wavelength and seemed to share a common bond with our ambitions. Not that we were that close, but the chemistry was there. We held each other in high esteem. After graduation, we both wound up working for the same company and our friendship grew even deeper.
I left that company several years later to pursue my own destiny while he stayed behind, content with his function in life. We didn’t visit that often after that, but periodic reunions proved that the chemistry was still there. I suppose it always would have been had cancer not intervened.
It’s funny how the older we get, the closer we become to our mortality. That’s something I rarely considered in the past. But now, I have to think about it. When one of your friends dies, you think about it. I have lost family members, but you expect them to die eventually. Friends are different. Dying is not even something you consider as a possibility. So, when it happens, you are shocked and dismayed at the very idea. How can that happen? And you even deny that it did happen for a while. But when I sat there listening to all of the praise given to someone I loved as a friend and cared deeply about, it finally sank in. And I started wondering what would my friends be saying about me?
My friend was more of a friend to me that I was to him. I’m ashamed to admit that, but it’s the truth. It had been several years since I had seen him, and I regret that I neglected to take the time to do that. It would have been so easy. But, I didn’t. It seemed like I always had something that I needed to do that was more important. I feel bad about that, but it’s too late, now. It is one of those things I will always wish I had done. I don’t know if I can get over something like that or not.
This experience has rattled my own existence enough that I am determined to start preparations for the inevitable. I don’t want to leave my family with tough decisions to make and a maze of obstacles to sorting out what I have left behind. My friend didn’t. At least he had the advantage of knowing it would happen and about when, if you want to call that an advantage. The doctors told him when they diagnosed his illness that he had six months. I didn’t find out about it until a month before his death. He spent every minute he could of his last days preparing his family for a future of comfort and safety. What a guy.
With all of the years I have seen go by, this friend’d death marks the first in what will be a series, I suppose, of events that take me toward my own end. I probably won’t spend a great deal of time wondering which number in the series I will be, but the idea will always be there. Every person has regrets. I know I have enough of my own. But I can’t change what caused them. I can only learn from them and reshape my own life as a result. If I was able to spend a year flying helicopters in Vietnam and survive, there’s little reason why I shouldn’t be able to handle my life now, and make life better for those I love.
I guess you could say that death does have a purpose. Maybe not the one we thought of, but a useful one, nonetheless. I do regret that it took me this long to realize it, but at least I finally did. I hope it’s not too late.