Here's to Good Friends
My father, who has been called the world's oldest living teenager, has this group of friends that refer to themselves as the Dirty Dozen. They are all men, all in their 50's or 60's and all a bit on the wild side. These men are politicians, county officials, business owners and the like. While they've known each other since time began (more or less), they bonded over Kiwanis and Chamber of Commerce meetings. Over the years, their comradery became something more than that and the thirteen of them became nearly inseparable. They span the East Coast each year in search of a golf course that will put up with them; from upstate New York to North Carolina to Florida, they vacation together, sans wives, in some male bonding ritual that always seems to include an elaborate practical joke. Sometimes there would be fourteen, maybe even sixteen. But it was always that original twelve that formed the core of the group. One of the dozen died a few days ago. Sam* was a loud, boisterous man whose height and build, not to mention the baritone depth of his voice, made him seem larger than life. He was a good man with a good heart, which isn't surprising given the nature of the dozen; after all, it was these men that people called on when they needed wheelchair ramps built on their homes or Thanksgiving dinner cooked for 100 hungry senior citizens. Sam was diagnosed with cancer of the throat several months ago. Maybe it was even a year ago; time flies when a friend is dying. From the get-go, the rest of the dozen were there to take care of Sam, even against his will. They drove him to doctor's appointments (I think he could drive himself at that point, but given the chance to take care of himself, he probably wouldn't). They made sure he did whatever the doctor was ordering him to. When he would get depressed or defiant about his sickness, his wife would ring up one of the dozen and they would be at Sam's house in seconds, knocking some sense into him. Knowing someone with cancer is like forever being an audience to the theatrics of their disease. And there's always that singular point in the program when you shift from lounging back in your seat, whispering to another friend I know this is a drama, but I still think it's going to have a good ending, to sitting rigid and upright, stunned by the sudden knowledge that the ending to this one is going to suck. The clearer it became that Sam wasn't in this for the long haul, the more the dozen pulled together. They took him out to dinner, they picked him up and dragged him to the weekly Kiwanis congregations, which are more along the lines of social gathering than meetings. They took him to the golf course, to the bar, to the diner for lunch. They wanted to make sure that Sam's last days were well spent. Towards the end, Sam's boisterousness bordered on belligerence. His wife would often call my father crying. She knew where Sam's attitude came from, but that didn't make it easier to take. My father would drop what he was doing and go over to Sam's to give him a what for. The dozen took no shit from Sam. Sure, he was dying, but they weren't going to let him go out with a scowl on his face. When it got to the point that Sam couldn't leave the house, the dozen brought the gatherings to him. They cooked huge dinners and brought them over to Sam's house once a week. They stayed until Sam's wife kicked them out. A few Sundays back we were at my parents' house having dinner when Sam's son-in-law called. Sam couldn't breathe. He needed to be in a hospital. I watched my father go into action; I imagine he had this part of the script already planned in head because he did it with such inevitability, in such a business like manner. He called the fire department (he is the commissioner), spoke to the dispatcher and told him that it was time for Sam to go to the hospital. He would meet them at Sam's house. He then said to me something along the lines of it being the last time Sam would be leaving his house. The next week or two were a balancing act of waiting for the end and not wanting the end to come. My father and his friends went to the hospital every single day; all these men work, some of the run businesses and some of them run towns. Every one of them took the time from their days and nights to go hang out with their friend, even if their friend didn't know they were there. They did it for themselves, they did it for his wife and family and they did it for the dozen. I don't know why I'm so amazed at the strength of friendship that the dozen exhibit. After all, my father - and may of the dozen - worked within a brotherhood. For my father, that came from twenty years in the fire department. You learn a lot about bonds and trust between friends when your lives literally depend on each other. My father lost a lot of friends on 9/11. I really don't think he's been the same since then and each subsequent death of a friend has hit him harder than the one before. Maybe when you're in your sixties and your circle of friends start dropping out of the human race - whether it be from tragedy or disease - you find yourself in that old cliched spot of facing your own mortality. How long before the friends start coming to your house to comfort you and bring you dinner and a few needed laughs? And perhaps for men like these, who find their joys in life best expressed by acting like overgrown teenagers (and I mean that in a good way), the reality of one's life expectancy hits a bit harder. I would suspect that for a person who is 65 and views that number some sort of downward decline towards the inevitable end, death comes marching like a good soldier and you salute it and get in line. But 65 isn't what it used to be; I see more and more people who fit into the AARP demographic range but are holding off on getting in line for the old age death march. We work, play and live hard into our 70's and 80's now. I know a man who just celebrated his 100th birthday by getting up and going to work. So while our minds are set on our senior years being just as much fun, just as fulfilling as our younger years, it makes accepting the coming end of our time here just a bit harder. It must have been nice for Sam to round out his dying days with a dozen or so friends who have this great friendship and know what to do with it. And I'm sure it was a great comfort to him to know that those friends would always be around for his wife and family, that they would always consider his family an extended part of the dirty dozen even after he was gone. There were 200 people at the funeral home when I was there last night. That was just the beginning of the long strand of people who lined up outside, waiting to get in and pay their respects to Sam and his family. His absence will be reflected every time someone says the phrase dirty dozen and I believe that is a great testament to his life and to friendship. I wish that everyone could experience the kind of kinsmanship that these men have; friends held together by humor and love, carrying you through life until the proverbial bitter end. Here's to good friends. And Sam.
*Name changed to protect this post from Google. I've discovered that people aren't always that happy when you write about them on the internet.