My friend Bob Jones passed away suddenly yesterday. He was two months shy of his 55th birthday.
Bob and I worked together when I ran the college bookstore at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, from 1988 to 1993. Bob had gone to Sewanee to study theology, but instead of graduating and going off somewhere to become an Episcopal priest, he fell in love with “the mountain” as it is called, and settled down there. When I met him, he was a freelance writer and editor; his wife, a world-class calligrapher. They had two lovely children (and a third one came along in 1990).
Bob’s recorded music collection dwarfed my own — and that’s saying something. We had a lot in common, aside from our shared love for music and literature — we both had tempestuous relationships with organized religion, deep love for natural beauty, and we also shared a few of the same vices, but I won’t go into that here.
When I needed to hire a book manager for the store, Bob applied. At first my boss was suspicious of my desire to hire Bob, because we were friends. But Bob’s intelligence and willingness to work hard soon won my boss over, and working alongside Bob became a chief delight of my years in Sewanee.
When I would travel, Bob took care of my two cats, Julian and China. He never took payment for the bother, although the deal was that he had liberal borrowing privileges from my book and CD library in exchange for his efforts. Bob helped me to get a show at the university radio station, and on one occasion I joined his family when we road-tripped to Atlanta to see our favorite traditional Irish band, Altan. In 1990 Bob and I attended a booksellers’ convention in Las Vegas, where we had a memorable evening dancing in the streets with Mickey Hart.
Our friendship eventually got strained. I became bored with my job, and it was time for me to move on, but I stayed in Sewanee probably about a year longer than I should have. More and more I abdicated my role as store manager and leaned on my staff to pick up the slack, while I ran off to Grateful Dead shows or Pagan gatherings or eventually began wooing Fran in Atlanta, whom I would marry in 1993. Like most businesses where the boss is falling down on the job, the employees dealt with their anger by complaining about me to each other. Only Bob had the integrity to challenge my behavior directly, although his southern reserve meant that rather than confronting me face to face, he chose the more diplomatic path of leaving me letters or voice mails in which he expressed his frustration and disappointment with my performance. Alas, I missed the opportunity and just withdrew further from him, to the point that by the time I married Fran and moved to Atlanta, we were barely speaking to one another.
It was the loss of a good friendship. After I left Sewanee, I only spoke to Bob one more time: he called me on his 40th birthday to tell me he missed me and loved me. And then, when my eldest cat Julian died in 2007, I looked him up online and we traded a few email messages. The tone of that correspondence was warm and conciliatory, but after several exchanges I left a message from him unanswered, and that was the last contact between us.
Then this morning our mutual friend Joan emailed me the news. It was unexpected, and now his family is in shock. I’m in shock too. The man who published my first book once told me that many men die in their early 50s, and we talked about guys like Jerry Garcia or Thomas Merton. But Merton was killed in a freak accident and Garcia had punished his body for years before it finally gave out. With Bob, it’s more absurd than either of those cases. Life is simply uncertain, and Bob lived with existentialist good humor and then died far too soon.
I’m sad that I squandered that friendship and then missed my chances at repairing it, even from 175 miles away. I’ve been heartened at all the old friends I’ve reconnected with on Facebook, folks whom I had lost touch with, so often because of my own inertia. The woman who told me about Bob’s passing is now on Facebook. Facebook, email, the telephone, good old snail mail… we have plenty of ways to stay in touch with those we’ve loved; plenty of ways to reconnect with old friends even when the friendship has grown cold for one reason or another. I think we all need to take some time every day or week or so to nurture or revive those old friendships.
I missed my chance with Bob, and now I regret it. But maybe the next time I make an effort to keep an old friendship alive or to repair an estranged connection, Bob will smile up in heaven. Because I’ll have him in mind.