They had nothing in common except the winter that took them away. I’m sure they wouldn’t have gotten along if they’d met but in all likelihood they never would have. I knew them all – some for years – but I didn’t know any of them all that well. There was Frank, an almost famous guitarist and teacher. There Was Elizabeth, a brilliant and incisive curator. There was Charlie, a self-effacing lawyer and there was Betty who every day arrived at the Riviera Cafe promptly at 3:30 and left, two or three Bushnills later, at 5. Whatever she did in the past she wasn’t doing when I knew her. None of them lived to see 65. Elizabeth was expecting her death; her cancer had returned and she didn’t see any sense in undergoing chemo and radiation when doctors could give her no hope. The others, though, were taken by surprise. “We’re getting to the point when people we know start to die naturally,” a friend says. That’s another thing that divides generations: how as you get older friends and acquaintances drop away. There’s some sort of frontier you cross when you begin to see your contemporaries disappear one by one – it’s no longer a rarity or aberration. I haven’t seen Ellie around in some time. Oh, didn’t you hear? It’s like you start with a tapestry and little by little, and then faster and faster, it begins to unravel, exposing gaps, maybe not so noticeable at first and then later inescapable, until one day there’s barely anything left. There’s just you and one day there’s not even you anymore, either.
Frank was stricken just before Christmas and went to the hospital, complaining that he had difficulty breathing. They put him under and gave him antibiotics. The doctors assured his family he would most likely pull through, but they were mistaken. They attributed his death to a combination of sepsis, organ failure and Legionnaire’s Disease. I don’t know anyone else who ever had Legionnaire’s Disease. I thought they’d pretty much gotten rid of it. Guess not. Charlie had a heart condition but hadn’t told many people about it. When his family, alarmed after no one had heard from him for a few days, went into his apartment, they found his two cats but couldn’t find him. They went back – no luck. Finally they found him. He’d been there the whole time, lying on a top loft bed where no one had thought to look. Betty might have suspected she had a problem. She was falling a lot. But she put off going to a hospital. She went to the bar instead but the bartender saw how sick she looked and insisted she get medical attention. A brain lesion was detected. It turned out to be cancer which had also spread to her lungs and liver. A couple of weeks later she was dead. No one expected it to happen so quickly. She was found on the Monday after the Superbowl. She loved sports so her friends hoped that she’d lived long enough to watch it though they didn’t think she wanted the Ravens to win.
When news reached her friends that Elizabeth died, a dinner was arranged in her honor at a restaurant in the Village. She was one of those unusual people who said what she thought when everyone else was being circumspect. Frank’s memorial was held a dozen blocks away at a Village bar where he’d played and hung out; there were so many people there was hardly room to move. He was a terrific guitarist – one of the best people say, but never achieved the recognition he deserved. He was famously cantankerous, too. An ex-girlfriend recounts how Frank had asked her to marry him many times “and I always said yes and we never did.” Then she admits that it was probably a good thing. “He would have been dead long before this if he’d married me.”
I don’t know whether there will be a memorial for Charlie. He didn’t have many friends and his family lives out of state. Betty’s friends meanwhile are planning something in her memory – at her favorite bar naturally and beginning as close to 3:30 PM as possible – but plans are still in flux. “I’ll invite even the people she wasn’t talking to at the end,” says her friend Angela, “Where she is, she’ll be at peace with them.” “She’s looking down on us,” another friend suggests. “Oh, no,” Angela says, “She isn’t looking down. She’s right here with us now.”
They say that you’re only truly gone the last time that someone says your name, when there’s no one left on earth to remember that you were ever here.