People tend to shy away from the uncomfortable subject of death. And who can blame them?
A co-worker made plans to go home the same weekend I transferred south to Quantico. A girlfriend in Philly had changed her mind and took him back, so the last time I saw handsome Joe Karpen, he waltzed out of our D.C. office wearing a broad smile and a new after-shave.
Two months later, another Marine and I crossed paths while shopping in a commissary. We stopped to talk, and I asked about the old gang and their antics, which made us both laugh for a moment. Then I asked about Joe. The sergeant looked at me with surprise.
Didn’t you hear about Joe? He got killed the same weekend he went to see his girl up in Philly.
The news hit me hard. I felt a sensation like wind being slammed from my chest and the room began to spin. My legs almost buckled, and I recall using my shopping cart to steady myself while he spoke.
Joe, downtown. All alone, on a sidewalk. Daylight. Volkswagen beetle. Drunk driver. Sudden swerve. Terrible, terrible loss. I am sorry. I thought you knew.
My mind continued to reel after he and I parted company, and the shock stayed with me for days after.
Years later, my pal Steve and I worked as roofers for a summer. We lived together, we ate together, and we chased wild women together. One day the man was there; the next he was gone. Horrible accident. I remember being slightly stunned at the time.
My father passed away next, while I was on the road. I felt more anger then than sorrow.
My mother finally died after a long illness. I thought we all saw that one coming, but then I broke down and bawled like a baby while trying to speak at a memorial service the family held.
That greatly surprised me.
What surprised me even more is how hard I grieved later own. It was a horrible thing for a tough Marine to go through, but later own I saw the need for it. People then were even talking about how men should be allowed to cry, but it still seems like only women have mastered the mysterious art of tears.
Yesterday, right after posting what was meant to be a whimsical and light-hearted story about a good friend from days gone by, I made the promised phone call, only to learn that she had died three years ago.
I apologized to the woman who answered the phone, hung up and went looking for the small bottles of Jose Cuervo margaritas I had seen stashed away in the pantry. Then I located what is probably the first cassette tape in my small collection: Sade, singing her heart out on an album called Promise. Next I twisted off a cap and turned up the volume, and only then did I sit down and do some serious listening for awhile.
And today I know this: she will be forever missed by me, but I feel much better now, after going through the mean, dreadful process. And thank you for listening.