An Opinionated Daddy's View of Life

Thursday, July 26, 2012

What Do You Do When The Person You Always Wanted to Be When You Grow Up Dies?

In a few weeks I turn 50. Turning 50  is sort of a major milestone, a least in our culture. For me this milestone is made even more poignant by the recent death of an old and cherished friend.

Mo and I knew each other for nearly 30 years.  When we met as young sailors, each just leaving active duty to join the reserves. We could not have been more short, stocky, homely, loud, obnoxious, impetuous, gay as a goose; him: tall, slender, blond, handsome, calm, poised, elegant, yet we became friends.  As the years passed, our military careers sometimes intersected (we both became reserve officers) and diverged (I changed career fields, he returned to active duty), yet, we always close.

Mo is the one who taught me to love beer and baseball.  We were there for each other through successful relationships and not so successful relationships.  As the years past, we became mature sailors, our military careers flourishing.  Yet in some small way we remained, at least when together, the young sailors we felt ourselves to be in our hearts.  We talked about the Navy's Core Values (Honor, Courage, Commitment), values he exemplified.  We talked beer and baseball.  We talked about leadership and mentorship.  We had many a long discussion about how screwed up is the Navy (at least sometimes) and the ways in which we just knew we could make the Navy better, if they'd just appoint put us in charge.  While the Navy, she is a harsh mistress, we both loved her with a passion.  As we neared retirement, we looked forward, as old sailors tend to do, to drinking beer, watching baseball, and sharing old sea stories with each other.

Alas, that will not happen.  Brave, humble, poised, showing grace until the end, he passed away in the arms of Virginia, the love of his life last Friday. 

I found out he was ill in January, ironically at the funeral of another old shipmate.  Not wanting to worry us (the 'us' being me and some other close Navy buddies) he pulled us aside and said, "I know this is an awkward time, but I am not sure when I'll see you all at the same time in the same place.  But, I have to tell you, I have cancer."  We were all shocked.  He was as tall and handsome as ever.  He was calm and upbeat about his prognosis.  He assured us we needn't worry.  He'd keep in touch and let us know how he was doing.  As recently as March, when I had them (Maurice and Virginia) over to dinner, he looked good.  Playing down his illness, positive he could win his battle with cancer, he was as funny and joyful as always.  

It was a surprise, therefore, to receive a text from Virginia in June telling me he'd been in the hospital for 9 days and might not leave it.  She encouraged me to visit him.  Visit him I did.  Ironically, my office is located in the building next to and attached to the hospital in which he was staying.  He was literally just about 200 yards down the hallway from where I work.   I took great advantage of that closeness.  I tried to visit every day, two or three times a day.  We laughed, we told stories, we talked beer and baseball, and we laughed some more.  We did all the things we hoped to do together as old sailors.

As the days passed, he weakened.  Yes, as he did everything, he dealt with the progression of his illnes with grace and poise. When asked he had any unfinished business, his response (so, I am told), "No, I've had a wonderful life."  Later, when told there was nothing else to be done, he thanked his doctors and other caregivers for their efforts on his behalf.

Still mentally aware, he actively discussing options (home hospice care, movement to a treatment center, etc.) with his family. His goal, to spend as much time as remained with those he loves.  One day, while visiting, I was talking to his family and sort of out of the side of my mouth gently teasing him, 'You KNOW how bossy he is...' and such. Exhausted, lying in bed, eyes closed, he'd been listening to every word, still capable of grinning at being teased.

When I was leaving, his parents came to speak with me. They started to talk about funeral arrangements and
such. He was to receive, as he well deserves, a funeral with full military honors. While I appreciated knowing the plans and moved by how he wants his wishes carried I was also not willing to give in. So, I told his parents, "The last time I wore my Blues was to the funeral of another old friend. I know I'll need to have them cleaned and pressed, so I look sharp at Maurice's funeral (he'd never forgive me if I didn't.) But, I am unwilling to take them to the cleaners just yet, as that seems like sending a karmic message of defeat. I don't want to do it until I have to. And, right now, I don't and I am planning still being at least a while before I do."  I am not really sure any of us knew how soon it would turn out to be.

When I last saw him, he remained mentally aware, but had very little energy. He was spending most of his time lying in bed, with his eyes closed. During my time there, he woke from a deep sleep (I could tell he was asleep, because he was jerking like a dog does when he has 'doggy dreams'), but remained lying back with his eyes closed. I said, "Maurice, are you awake?" His eyes popped open and he cracked, "God, I hope so" then smiled and went back to sleep. This was to be the last time we spoke. 

As the life of any military officer, your personal life takes a back seat to your professional life.  In this case, as his illness reached its end, I was sent by the Navy on active duty in Hawaii.  Before I was to leave, I told him I would be away for a few weeks and that he needed to promise me that he'd still be around when I came home.  As these things happen, his poor body wore out and he died before the end of my tour.

While it was suggested that I cut my trip short, I know that Mo would never forgive me for shirking my duty by leaving my assignment early, even to attend the funeral of a valued and beloved friend.  So, I'll be on watch, well, just having completed a 12 hour mid-watch, when his services occur.  I've already spoken to Virginia and told her that I'll be observing a moment of silence to coincide with the services. It seems the least I can do to honor my old friend.

So, what do you do when the person you always wanted to be when you grow up dies?  I wish I could tell you.  I could spout a bunch of cliches about finding joy in some form or another every day.  I could tell you to hug the ones you love and remember to tell them how much you love them as often as you can.  Death affects us each differently and we experience differently with each one that occurs and at which age it is when we experience it.  Perhaps when I've had more time to process my friend's passing, I'll have more sage advice to give.  At the moment though, other than to spout the above cliches, I don't. 

At least, that is what THIS DADDY thinks.

Uploaded by TraavikInfo on Feb 1, 2012

A-ha's eternal pop evergreen performed by young accordeon players from KUM SONG School, filmed in Pyongyang, North Korea december 2011. Part of multi-genre project THE PROMISED LAND by director and artist MORTEN TRAAVIK.

Oh, for those of you who won't get the connect, don't worry about it.  It is an inside joke between Maurice and I.  He'd get it and laugh and laugh and laugh.  Fair winds and following seas, my friend.