Last night I learned another friend had fallen sick. This time, the illness was lymphoma. When I got the news, he was already in the ICU, hooked up to all sorts of things that go beep in the night. This morning, I learned he’d died.
In calling this man a friend, I exaggerate a little. Nearly two years have passed since I last saw him. (Somehow, in spite of all the best scientific evidence, this seems far too short a time for lymphoma to have invested and conquered him.) We were never that close — he’s never visited me at home, for example. I got to know him well enough to feel affected by news of his death because we were once membes of the same parish community. “Fellow parishioners,” the proper term, sounds a little cold, a little weak, to do the bond justice. “Community mates,” though more communal, not to mention matier, rings too awkwardly to deserve coining.
Really, I’m not sure what to call us.
Sometime after 9/11 — or so I remember reading — Homeland Security recruited authors of speculative fiction into a special think tank. There, they spent their time imagining all the outside-the-box ways in which terrorists might attack. Whenever I’m forced to share my space with new people, my mind runs in a roughly analogous direction. If the alien presence is an individual, I wonder: Who will screw whom, and how, and when? If it’s a group, I pick out the alpha gorillas, estimating just how far survival will require the supression of my personality. For better or worse, I’m almost never wrong.
Plunging into a parish community threw those faculties into overdrive. Now, I’ve heard many Catholics complain that people in their own parishes are aloof, standoffish. I maintain they’d have had a very different experience if they’d shown up as converts. Or rather, they’d have had a different experience in an RCIA program run by Sister Lucia. The woman has the instincts of a social director on a cruise ship. For that reason, it took months of filtering out busybodies and motormouths, of gently turning aside the too obviously needy, before I was able to construct the bubble of privacy I wear as a general rule.
But, at surprsingly regular intervals, someone would impress me with a low-key, disinterested niceness. That’s a rare quality, probably because it’s a unprofitable one — it tends not to blow away recruiters in job interviews. The newly departed was one of these. I’ll call him “Eddie,” a name nothing like his, as a reminder of how slight an acquaintance we really had.
One afternoon, after a homily that included a rousing call to service, I showed up at the parish office and proclaimed my intention to volunteer for something. I wasn’t particular about what.
The small man behind the desk looked up. Through large, sad eyes he asked, “Do you have a community service sentence to fulfill?” Making a mental note never again to leave so many tattoos visible, I told him no, I was in it for the caritas. The man smiled a little and arranged for me to help do the wiring for some Adore Ministries shindig where a strobe light would set off the Blessed Sacrament. This was Eddie. Ever after, he remembered my name and made a point of seeking me out for a handshake and some chitchat, even if it meant ventuing into the smoking section.
Now that I think about it, Eddie might have been a smoker himself. The fuzziness of my memory even on this point says something about the nature of community matehood. By forcing strangers into close quarters without encouraging intimacy, the parish, like the workplace, enables them to make a profound impression on one another while remaining largely mysterious. Eddie lived in a small room in the back of the parish offices — that much I do remember. He was a musician, and from what I understand, had played some pretty respectable venues. With great caution, I’ll venture to recall that his life in rock had been colorful, meaning chaotic. He had the gentle, weary air of someone who’s stayed out a little too late a few too many times and is finally ready for a long nap.
Eddie shared these fragments of backstory during what turned out to be one of our last conversations — the very conversation, in fact, where he cemented his place in my heart. The parish was holding its annual Memorial Day retreat, and the retreat was turning into a nightmare. Serving as scullery maid in the kitchen had just about zombified me. An imminent, unsought administrative shakeup was infecting the whole place with a grinding sense of dread. I was sitting on the curb in the alley by the kitchen door, feeling like wax in the summer evening heat, when Eddie showed up, wearing his familiar, half-apologetic smile.
Maybe Eddie felt the same kind of professional jealousy toward, say, Rick Springfield, but for Sedaris he had nothing but praise. It was intelligent praise — the praise of someone who doesn’t laugh easily. We talked about exaggeration and grotesquerie, and it was obvious he grasped these concepts firmly. Eddie then began to talk about his music, and I was touched to note he took care to hold the discourse down to my level, which is to say, the level of someone who likes Rick Springfield. We can’t have talked for more than half an hour, but by the time Eddie excused himself to go to bed, I had recovered the verve necessary to stagger back to the sink and the leaning tower of dishes, each one caked with lasagna.
About a week later, Eddie tracked me down after Mass and said, “Here, why don’t you take this? I’ve about read it to death.” He handed me a copy of Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day.
Well, of course I went off and read the damn thing to death myself. I still have it on my shelf. It occurs to me now that the second piece in the collection, titled “Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities,” amounts to a collection of interlocking meditations on loneliness. Sedaris’ father, Lou, feels isolated from his family by his fervid appreciation for jazz. (Regarding Dexter Gordon, he says, “You could have taken a hatchet and cut the man’s lips right off his face…and he’d still have played better than anyone else out there.”) He signs his son up for guitar lessons with a midget, isolated both by his size and his talent (and, perhaps, by his abrasive personality). When Sedaris inadvertently reveals his sexual orientation to his guitar teacher, the man recoils, making him feel like the odd person out. Sedaris finally drops the lessons, leaving his father, his teacher and himself all in their separate worlds.
When I review the few facts I know about Eddie’s life — in particular his transition from the rarefied, isolating existence of a musician to the warmly enfolded one of a parish fixture — I wonder whether that story spoke to him with special urgency. Of course I’ll never know, but my love of unifying signs and symbols makes me want to believe it did. Eddie had the rare gift of extending fellowship with unobtrusive gestures. He knew how to embrace the claustrophobe gently, to preclude loneliness in the born loner. Someone should coin a word for that, too.
Thanks to eulogistic convention, I feel the pull to say that I wish Eddie and I had gotten to know each other better, spent more time together, become bosom chums. But I’m not sure that’s what I actually believe. Not every pair is cut out for close friendship. Eddie and I might well have gotten as much good out of one another as we could realistically have hoped to get.
In an essay for this week’s Atlantic, novelist Stephen Marche quotes John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, on the dangers of over-reliance on social media. “The greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are,” says Cacioppo. The type of face-to-face interaction Marche seems most concerned with preserving is the intimate kind that involves routine exchanges of confidences. I wonder whether he doesn’t do a disservice to relationships like mine and Eddie’s, which are limited, maybe even superficial, but grounded in real human sympathy. Once those get their due, religion might start looking a lot more rational.