Meet my friend Don, who died too young from cancer at the age of 57 in 2014. We were friends for over 30 years and I’ve never felt so helpless as when he was dying.
Throughout our lives together Don challenged me to be better. Whether thinking through a problem, or how to take a breath and not to take things so personally. I learned by watching, and he changed me greatly.
Over the years he pulled me through scrapes with a patience and generosity that sometimes made me stand in awe. We frustrated each other, laughed together and helped each other.
He’s the only friend I’ve had who would sit across the table from me and read while having a burger at our favorite place. We both loved to read and we were that comfortable with each other. It just seemed natural for this to be one of our shared activities.
One of his great loves was playing blues bass guitar. When he joined a band, I became the band photographer because it was a way to practice my own craft. As members came and went, I watched him guide and mentor many of them.
One was a singer with a great raw talent whose confidence would get shaken occasionally. He would buy CDs of the great blues singers, including Candye Kane, and tell her, “This is what you need to learn to do. This is how the greats sing.” He taught her about the blues in general and sat with her while she learned new songs. He treated many others with the same mentorship.
Ten years before he died, I moved into my own apartment. Often he would contact me to say, “If you’re not listening to/reading/watching xyz, you really should be. I think you’d like it.” He was almost always right. Almost.
As maddening as he could be, Don taught patience, compassion, and a level of generosity far beyond what I already knew. We often talked about what friends did for each other, especially when one was in crisis mode. I would tell people that of course I was going to help Don, it’s what friends do. There were things I would rather not have done for him (a certain pee bottle comes to mind), and I did them anyway because he needed me.
He reinforced the notion that true friends will do everything in their power for each other. In learning to be the friend I wanted, belief in myself became stronger, and the friends I wanted to have began appearing. I strove to be more kind, patient, compassionate, tolerant and generous. I can’t imagine living my life any other way. I’m not sure Don understood how instrumental he was in these lessons.
As his epitaph, Don’s father chose, “A gentle man.” How perfect. Don was indeed gentle, and he is missed. I give thanks for all the things he taught me and strive to continue living the lessons I learned from him.