Saturday, July 10, 2010


So, I get an e-mail from Eleanor in September that she and Larry will be in Boston for a conference in October and we should get together. We arrange to meet downtown at their hotel. We laugh our way through dinner recalling old stories and fond characters and reminiscences. Their son Greg will be married in December. This will be the last of their three kids to go down the aisle. I'd seen Greg once since he was a tot, but my most vivid image of him is when he was 2 and attempted to push a bowling ball down an alley. Larry had to do the funky chicken dance half way down the alley because the ball otherwise would never have made it down to the pins. I'm not positive, but I think we were tossed out of the establishment after that.

Every once in a while I marvel how an act of kindness, or what seems to be an insignificant gesture can have a dramatic effect on one's life. In 1976 I was living in a duplex that Larry and Eleanor owned. We students lived on one side, and Larry, Eleanor and Christopher--Greg's elder brother, lived on the other side. Greg was not yet born. Larry and E had bought the place while we were living on the one side and let us stay on as their tenants once they moved into the other side. We became good friends. We were contemporaries. Larry was a doc completing his residency. E was not only raising Christopher but getting a nursing degree and MBA, not to mention redecorating the place.

My roommates were law students and they took the bar exam in July 1976. They were ready to leave town and start careers or vacations. I still had about a month more work left to complete my degree and, significantly, had no job on the horizon once that was done.

So in August of 1976 Larry and E suggested I just come on and move in with them, rent free, until I finished up and could find work. They rented our student place out to some other doc, let me haul my belongings including my own phone (in case one of the schools to which I'd applied were to call) and I moved in next door.

I had applied to at least fifty schools by August 1976 and had a varied assortment of rejection letters to show for the effort. By the end of August I was essentially done with the dissertation but still did not have a place to work. I'd lined up some part time teaching, but that was all. Larry and Eleanor told me not to worry about it, and just stay with them until I could find work. They were unusually accommodating. There was no quid pro quo. They just were good people and friends.

In either late August or early September I went for a run around Delaware Park. When I came back perspiring through their house, Eleanor told me I'd had a call from SUNY Fredonia, a small college 50 miles southwest of Buffalo. I'd not applied to Fredonia so I was unsure of why I was being called.

And here is how serendipity works. Someone at Fredonia had quit at the last minute. The dean there was in a frenzy to find a quick replacement. He called the local university center, University of Buffalo, and coincidentally reached my adviser, who mentioned me as an option. My adviser gave the frantic dean my number and Eleanor picked up the phone and told me to call. This was at a time before answering machines.

I got an interview and got the job. I had five happy years there, earned tenure, and then went on to my present work at Northeastern.

We recalled this event over dinner and again they pooh poohed their kindness. Eleanor was a big sports fan and had read my book. She enjoyed it quite a bit--or at least said she did, and had bought a few copies for Greg who is now an unusually successful basketball coach and some other friends interested in sports.

Around March Madness this year I get an e-mail from Eleanor telling me that Greg's high school team won the state championship. Then I get another one telling me that she is at the final four of the NCAA. She sounds unusually happy.

In late April I receive another note from her, but this one is a forwarded note. The kind of letter you get on e-mail with a message that you are supposed to forward to ten friends. This was a terrifically upbeat message about how if you knew you had only a short time to live, what would you do, who would you call. It was the type of seize the day message that you want to pin to your bulletin board to make sure you don't squander time.

I jot a quick note back to her telling her how uplifting that note was and that I am grateful that she sent it out to me. I am in the library doing something I think is important when she posts a response that I retrieve from my laptop.

The response informs me that the seize the day message came to her coincidentally, but is particularly relevant for her. Right after Gregory's wedding she went for a ho hum check up and was told that she has gall bladder cancer.

I am, of course, startled by the news. I write a quick note back wishing her well and then bolt to my car where I keep an address book that I hope has Larry and Eleanor's number. I reach her about a half hour later.

She is upbeat. I ask her what she is doing. She says they are just finishing dinner. "Well, how are you?" I say.

She gives me the lowdown. When I ask, hopefully, about the prognosis she says she will be lucky to be talking with me in two years, and the doctor who diagnosed the problem had said it could be as quick as 6 months. Still E sounds like a trooper. She is taking chemotherapy and she is going to the shore with the whole family in June and then they are having their traditional July 4th celebration. I tell her, genuinely, that if anyone can make it, it is she.

I write to them when they are at the shore and I receive, again, an upbeat response. "Feeling a little beat, but the kids are here and we're having a blast. Weather is great..." etc.

I write on July 4th knowing that it is a big day of celebration for them. I am surprised when I don't receive a note and became concerned that the situation had deteriorated.

Today I am worrying about something relatively inconsequential--will the garbage men pick up this huge bookcase I have put out.

I go to check my voice mail and hear the beeping sound which indicates that I have a message. The message is from a stranger who says that she is a friend of Eleanor's and would I give this caller a return call.

I do.

And she tells me that on July 9th, yesterday, my friend Eleanor succumbed, six months after she was diagnosed.

I'm unlikely to have a better friend. This is the third contemporary of mine who has passed in the last several months.

Seize the day.

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