The comfort of having a friend may be taken away, but not that of having had one. ~Seneca
If this post comes off as rambling I apologize in advance. I can only hope that the chaos in my head will make sense once written.
I began this post many times, each time deleting it in frustration. The only reason I am finally able to get it down and send it into cyberspace is that I’ve talked myself into believing it would be cathartic. At least that’s the hope.
It has been said that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally… acceptance. Although there is truth to that, it is not everyone’s truth. I seem to have worked through acceptance without having conquered anger.
A few days ago I learned that one of my closest friends passed away last week of stage 4 liver cancer. Even as I write this, it sounds like a contradiction. “Closest friend” and “didn’t know” shouldn’t be sharing a sentence. But they are the facts. I had no idea what he was going through. When I received the news, naturally, denial set in immediately. How could it be? We didn’t just know each other, we knew the most intimate details about each other’s lives. We had floated on each other’s highs and carried each other through the lows. We’d been friends for twenty some years. So how could something like this have happened and me not be aware?
I began to question the strength of our friendship. It became a game of Pong in my mind, one minute questioning our friendship and the next feeling guilty for questioning it. After many tears and a couple restless nights, I realized his decision to keep the news to himself was not a reflection of our relationship at all, but a private decision made by him, for him. He did what was best for himself, as it should be. But knowing that didn’t make it easier to accept.
Almost instantly, his death forced me to acknowledge raw emotion, in this case, the dark side of myself. The side that is supposed to understand this isn’t about me no matter how much I’m hurting. The side that understands how much he would have preferred to stick around. The side of me that is ashamed of myself for having feelings I know are wrong, but can’t help. The best I can do is continue to try to understand and make peace with them.
I was nineteen when my father passed away. I remember my mother telling me at one point months afterward that she was angry with him for leaving her. At the time, I silently condemned her for those feelings. How could she blame him for leaving her when it wasn’t his wish to go? It made zero sense to me.
Seven years ago, I lost my mother. Today, I wish she could come back even if only long enough for me to apologize to her. Although I wasn’t ‘in love’ with my friend as my mother was with my father, I did love him. And now I understand what she was trying to share with me all those years ago.
I’m angry with him. Not because he did anything wrong. I’m angry because he took something from me I can’t get back. He took away my chance to say goodbye. Believe me, I am fully aware of how selfish that sounds. Anything I could have said that might have meant anything to him had already been said over the years, so this isn’t about regrets. I think what bothers me more than anything is that I’m sure he was scared. I’m sure he was angry, too. I’m sure he went through denial. I’m sure he experienced emotions completely new to him. He took away my ability to help him through it. That’s what friends do, they help whenever and however they can and for the first time since we met, he kept me from being his friend. I initially saw it as him pushing me away, which made it personal.
We didn’t speak for the last month or so of his life. The very last words he ever said to me were, “Bye, bye. Bye bonds.” (If you knew him, you’d know just how typical a random phrase like that was.) For the next few weeks, he wasn’t around by phone or computer. I called him and left messages. I emailed and texted him. He would read the messages, but not respond. I knew he hadn’t been feeling the best, but that’s not exactly unusual at 59. It never occurred to me that the reason for his lack of presence might be medical. By now, he was a professor at Michigan State University and a grad student, so he was busy. Very busy, and always running a day behind his workload.
Eventually, worry did set in. The last message I sent to him was, “I can see you’re reading my messages, but not responding back. Should I be worried about the state of your well-being?” That was on November 16th. What I didn’t know at the time was that he had been undergoing testing under his doctor’s suspicion of liver cancer. I’ve since learned that several days after my last message to him, he received his prognosis. He learned of his cancer on November 19th and passed away on December 7th. He wasn’t given enough time to accept it himself, let alone share it with others. He told who he had to tell, and spared the rest of us. It’s only today that I am beginning to understand what a selfless act that was.
Knowing him as I did, I should have expected him to finish his life in exactly the way he did. Many years ago, we had had a conversation about death and he said that it was his opinion that only the strongest of people could go through a terminal illness and not burden others with the fact or the details of it. He believed it was human nature to share such news in search of words of encouragement, sympathy, support, or maybe even in the hope of an answer. He was strong. And silly. And clever. And kind, thoughtful, and giving. He was intelligent and talented. His breadth of knowledge on important issues was rivaled only by his breadth of knowledge on totally useless information (I once called him a walking trivia book). He loved kids and cats and baking and practical jokes. We met as a chance encounter when he was still a professor at Bloomsburg University. He then became my mentor and my editor. Eventually, he became one of my dearest friends.
He later moved away for a teaching position at the University of Jamestown in North Dakota (or NFD, as he referred to it), but we remained in constant touch. Last Christmas, he was coming to Pa for the holiday. We had had many conversations and he was very excited about taking me, my daughter, and her kids to the Wannamaker store in Philly to watch the lighting of the tree. It was something his mother did with him every year when he was a young boy and he was anxious to feel a glimmer of what he had felt then. But in the fall, he suffered the loss of a family member and returned for the funeral, making the Christmas trip impossible. He vowed we’d do it this year. Then I moved away. Then he passed away. There isn’t always a next year.
Every day, Facebook sends me a reminder of who I have memories with from previous years. His name appears in that reminder on most days. Not that I need it. He passed away on my son’s birthday, a date that already has special meaning for me. It was also the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. The reason I mention that is anyone who knew him even a little knows what a history buff he was. A glimpse of his FB timeline will reveal his love for history, sports, politics, and more.
But even without FB, my son’s birthday, or Pearl Harbor to mark the day, I could never forget him or the day I lost him. We were never romantically involved, but he knew more about me (and me him) than all but a handful of people I’ve ever known.
So, I suppose… I should focus on his life and not his death… I should find appreciation in the fact that he spared me the painful knowledge of what he was forced to go through, even though I would have preferred to have been there for him… I should count myself among the very lucky to have had such a friend in my life… I should find comfort in the knowledge that he’s in a better place. And I suppose I should be happy for him knowing that he has finally been reunited with his mother who he has missed so much for so long. I’m sure the anticipation of seeing her again was the comfort he needed to get him through his last few weeks.
This isn’t the first loss I’ve experienced. Unfortunately, I’m sure it won’t be the last. But it was different and I’m not yet sure why. Please refrain from posting negatives in response to this blog. I’ve always been better able to understand my own self by writing down whatever I was struggling with, and this time is no different. I know my thoughts are all over the board and maybe irrational by the standards of some. You could call me selfish and to a degree, you’d be correct. Death and emotions, hard to understand individually. Almost impossible to understand when mixed. I’ll keep working on it in the hope of understanding better… eventually.
Dana Eugene Creasy
March 22nd, 1957 ~ December 7th, 2016
This was the very last post that Dana made to his timeline. Somehow, and in many ways, I see the irony in it and find it so true to who he was.