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Learning How to Grieve for an Extraordinary Friend

Monday, August 01, 2022

By Megan Craig

An old friend has died. He lived a long and good life, and he didn’t contract COVID. He died of old age in a hospital in New York City. Or maybe he died of something else – an infection, dehydration, not eating, loneliness, depression. He had been talking about dying and wanting to die for years. I would answer the phone and hear his voice on the line, quivering in the last months.

“I just want to die, Megan,” he’d say. But his mind and wit remained sharp as his body fell apart around him.

It wasn’t simple to die. He was housebound for at least a year after his knees gave out. He refused to use a wheelchair and when he had a nasty fall in his apartment, I knew that was the beginning of the end. But the end is so ambiguous and seemed to go on and on. Even still, the phone call from his partner to say he was gone left me speechless in my chair. I realized I had not seen him in almost two years, even though he had been a presence in my life for the last twenty-five.

We first met at an art gallery where I was working in New York City. I had just graduated from college, and I think he saw me as a project or a curiosity — a farm girl in the big city, badly in need of some fashion advice and a swipe of lipstick.

The last time we got together, in the summer of 2020, we had planned to have lunch outside. I set the table with a white tablecloth and yellow zinnias from the garden. I put out glasses for water and separate glasses for wine, or maybe vodka. He and his partner arrived in their black car, and it was clear from the moment they opened the car door that my friend would not be able to make the walk down the path to the table on the back patio. So we picked up the whole table with all of the dishes on it and moved it right next to his car. We hoisted him into a chair, and there, in front of the garage and on the gravel, we had lunch in the sunshine.

He was not an easygoing person. Over the years, we met out for meals at various restaurants in New York and Connecticut. He would be dressed in a trim top and ironed slacks, a trench coat or jacket slung over his shoulders. Usually, he and his partner arrived early and sat at the bar. I always seemed to be late. There would be some fuss over what I was wearing or how I had my hair. Close scrutiny of my face and eye makeup. He loved to stare — his eyes impossibly wide behind huge, semi-tinted glasses. People stared at him too, and he seemed to revel in the spectacle of it all.

I will never know why he adopted me, but the truth is, he was present at every milestone in my life from the day I met him. He knew about my first date with the man I went on to marry. When I had my first baby, he arrived within days, eagerly holding her tiny body in his wrinkled hands. Once I had two girls, they became the focus of his attention, and he showered them with cards and gifts. I would receive voicemails weekly asking me to call him back, and reprimanding me for not answering my phone. Every message began exactly the same way: “Megan, hi dear, it’s Bert.” No one else has ever called me “dear.”

There were at least two separate occasions after the fall when his partner tried to get him to the hospital. But my friend was stubborn and clever. As soon as paramedics arrived with a stretcher, he shooed them away and could easily tell them the date, his address, and his birthday to prove his competency. On my last phone call with him, he told me he was in desperate pain, but he pivoted to ask how I was doing and whether I would be teaching in New York soon.

I had to accept that he was going to die in exactly the way he had lived, on his own terms, cursing those trying to help him, desperate for dignity, fighting the whole way. He finally lost consciousness for long enough that his partner could call an ambulance. He would not have gone willingly; he just wanted to be left alone. But most of us will need some help in dying, and I’m relieved that he had his life’s love by his side and some doctors and nurses and pain medication at the end. In the worst moments of the Omicron surge in New York, visiting hours at the hospital were restricted to a few hours in the afternoon and only one person at a time. His partner of forty-eight years was there every day, lining up in the cold to wait to be let inside along with hundreds of other people in masks desperate to visit their loved ones. The line stretched around the block. I thought I might drive in and visit. Instead, my friend slipped farther and farther off in the eternal pandemic twilight until I could barely picture him anymore.

It is hard to remember sometimes that ordinary deaths are happening all the time alongside the deaths from COVID and other calamities. The blur of it all feels contagious. It is also hard to think about how aging speeds up in our final years, and so many of those nearing the end when the pandemic began have seen their last years accelerated in isolation.

I had to accept that he was going to die in exactly the way he had lived, on his own terms, cursing those trying to help him, desperate for dignity, fighting the whole way.

After I heard about the death, I took a shower and suddenly had the alarming thought, “Now he is everywhere.” Where do the dead go? I used to know where he was located in his apartment in New York. I could picture him on his couch on the phone, Judge Judy sometimes blaring in the background. I used to prepare for visits by getting dressed and trying to fix my hair. Now, I thought, he’s going to be so disappointed to see that I’m actually a mess, to see my phone ringing on the table beside me as I fail to answer.

I keep expecting the phone to ring and to hear the same gravelly voice I’ve heard for so many years calling me “dear.” Without being near him recently, it is easy to imagine that he is still alive and that we are just out of touch for a bit, as I am with so many friends who have drifted away in the pandemic. The sadness tugs at me as I remind myself that death is different, that the line is dead. My grief is tinged with relief, because I know that he’s not suffering anymore, and with anxiety, because I have no idea where he is — all around me, nowhere and everywhere.

I like the expression “ambiguous loss,” coined by Pauline Boss and used to describe the kind of loss that reverberates without closure. Something goes missing, and you might spend your life looking for it. The nearer or dearer the person you lose, the harder it is to imagine how life can go on without them, the crueler the fact that it does. In this era of social distance, it feels like I lost my friend in degrees that should have made the end more gentle. But death retains its sharp edge.

On one of our last visits before the pandemic, I went to see him in his apartment. It was too difficult to maneuver out, so we ordered tuna sandwiches from the deli downstairs and ate them at his kitchen table. He had photographs of my girls on the window ledge. He cried a bit as he told me about being stuck inside.

Ours was an unlikely friendship across generations, but it is only in his absence that I appreciate how extraordinary it was to be adored by someone for no reason at all.


Megan Craig is an artist and an Associate Professor of philosophy and art at Stony Brook University. Craig has exhibited work nationally and internationally and has been awarded painting residencies and grants from several institutions including the Pollack Krasner Foundation, The Weir Farm Trust, The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Vermont Studio Center, and the New York Arts Foundation. At Stony Brook University, she teaches courses in aesthetics, ethics, French phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and American philosophy, with research focused on synaesthesia, color and color perception, embodiment, memory, and touch. Craig is also the graphic designer for Firehouse 12 Records.