About thirty years ago I drove my aged mother from her home in Hampton Bays on Long Island to a hospital an hour away in Port Jefferson. She wanted to visit her eighty-seven-year-old younger brother. It was a pleasant drive, but she was quiet because she was worried about him. When we got to his hospital room, we were shocked to see that he was already zipped up in a black vinyl undertaker’s bag. When a nurse offered to open it for a last look, my mother declined, and we went out to a stairwell landing where she began to cry. Through her tears, she kept saying, “Now I’m all alone!” Her two other brothers had died years before, and while she had obviously grieved them, the intensity of this grief seemed much greater and her sense of isolation profound.
At the time, I could not understand. She still had my father, her adoring husband of over sixty years, and she still had me, her only child, whatever that was worth. I could understand her grief because my uncle had been the brother most beloved, but I couldn’t understand that sense of isolation, that “Now I’m all alone!”
I am beginning to understand. My mother and my uncle had a history together from childhood to old age that was, by then, exclusively theirs. They had grown up under difficult circumstances in a very close Brooklyn Irish family with spinster aunts and bachelor uncles in residence as well. They had stayed close as young adults, as married couples, parents, and aging friends. They had summered together in Hampton Bays for years and then settled there in retirement. The rest of us knew bits and pieces of their shared lives, but only they knew it from the start. They had a history together that no one else shared, and, when my uncle died, my mother’s childhood in a sense died with him.
I am facing a similar loss now. My best and most long-standing friend is approaching his end. He suffers from no specific malady other than prolonged bed rest as he waited for two fractured vertebrae to heal. But in that process, his muscles so atrophied that his legs are now just long bones and knobby joints covered in skin. This man who could talk endlessly in leaping conversational shifts and could intimidate waiters and waitresses with his formidable bellow can barely whisper a few coherent sentences.
My parents are long gone. I have no siblings or any cousins left who know my childhood well. My friend is my “knew him when” friend. We’ve been eating and drinking together for almost seventy-five years if you count milk and cookies.
As he tells it, one day, when he was five and I six, he was languishing on his living room couch in his policeman’s uniform when he heard a great commotion and screams of pain outside. Grabbing his rubber billy club and policeman’s hat he rushed out to find the local bully jumping up and down on my spine. Somehow, he rescued me from paraplegia, and I have been in his debt ever since.
We were neighborhood kids on the northern border of Richmond Hill, Queens, the borough that always gets short shrift both in the literature about New York and when the City plows out after big blizzards. (One of the blots on its escutcheon is that it gave us Donald Trump.) Richmond Hill was then solidly white, middle to lower middle class, mostly Catholic and Protestant, and mostly German and Irish. My friend, however, was a Congregationalist. Although he has a pedigree on one side that can be traced back to the Puritans and is the grandson and great-grandson of formidable Congregational ministers, my friend’s religious upbringing seemed less burdensome than the grim Irish Catholicism in which I was raised.
We began in the same small public school in Richmond Hill, but when P.S. 51 ended at fifth grade, we diverged onto separate academic paths: he to another local public school, a local prep school, Princeton, and the Yale Law School; I to an awful Catholic grammar school, an excellent Catholic high school, Notre Dame and the Columbia Law School. (It is worth noting that out of two classes, each of about thirty boys and girls, I know of three boys who went to Harvard, Princeton and Dartmouth. I went to Notre Dame, and three of us went on to Ivy League law schools. There may have been even more. Not bad for a piddly oaky grammar school in a middle-class neighborhood in Queens.)
But we didn’t live in each other’s back pocket. High school with its intense academics, lots of homework, extracurricular activities, and for me a daily three-hour round-trip commute drew us into separate worlds. Our colleges too were distant and different experiences, but we always seemed to circle back to see how the other was doing. During college vacations while we still lived in the old neighborhood, we would take the IND subway to Manhattan to ice skate in Central Park, to trace Dylan Thomas’s staggering steps through various watering holes in Greenwich Village, but mostly to enjoy being in each other’s company. We were more explorers of the city than its denizens at that point. During one New York blizzard, we found a bar/restaurant in the Village that had amateur opera. On another night of wandering, we found a really neat bar with a ceiling covered in black fuzzy mold. Only recently did I discover that “Dirty Julius,” as we called it, was one of the preeminent gay bars of the closeted years. How could we have missed that?
After our post–law school military service, he as an enlisted man in the reserves, I as an officer in an infantry battalion in Germany, we both began our legal careers on January 2, 1966, in separate Wall Street law firms that happened to be located on different floors of the same building in lower Manhattan. And that first day and for the week thereafter, we walked together across the Brooklyn Bridge to get to work because Mike Quill had pulled his bus and subway workers out on one of their long transit strikes.
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