Thursday, April 6, 2023

"Time would find them generous"

Adams Memorial, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (Smithsonian)

     Gordon Gregg was my friend in kindergarten, and still is.
     True, our relationship was not as close as I'd have liked it be in the 55 years after he moved to Arkansas in 1967. But I didn't forget him either, and when the internet became a thing, tried to track him down but couldn't. A lot of Gordon Greggs. So I was overjoyed when he reached out to me on Facebook in 2021. I sent him the book of mine — Complete and Utter Failure — where he makes a cameo, and while I haven't taken him up on his offer to visit him in Montana, I'm certainly open to the trip. It sounds like fun.
     That's me. Call it loyalty. Call it neediness — probably a blend of the two. I still think about everyone I ever cared for, even those who did something jerkish 25 years ago and vanished. The door is always open.
     Except of course for those who've died. Death makes friendship problematic, though I still manage to maintain a sort of relationship with my dead friends, still consider them, remember them, try to learn things from them. Each offers valuable lessons, for instance, on how to live, and how to die.
     Roger Ebert comes immediately to mind. Though I have to qualify my use of the word "friend." That seems like putting on airs. I was a colleague, one of his many fans, well removed in the third tier. We had lunch together once. Attended each other's parties. He was kind and generous to me, and I admired him.
     As he died, of two particularly cruel forms of cancer, Roger was unflinching and honest, without a drop of self-pity — that last part is going to be hardest for me. I'm more of a gnash my teeth and wail sort of guy. I hope when the dread times come, I'll not only think, "Be like Roger" — that's a certainty — but then I'll have the fortitude to follow through. Dying is a long-haul process.
     Except when it's not.
     Andrew Patner is a reminder of the occasional rapidity of death. I was doing his WFMT radio show one week, he was dead and gone the next, or so it seemed. A matter of days or weeks. You never know when your time has come, thus it's smart to live your life like you'll be dead tomorrow. Jeff Zaslow conveys that lesson even more plainly. One icy road, one speeding truck, and it's all over. For you, anyway. For your family and friends, it has only just begun.
     Which brings up Steve Neal. His lesson is clear: time will pluck you away soon enough. Don't hurry its hand. Suicide is a grotesque abuse of your loved ones. It offloads your pain to everyone who ever cared about you. Don't do it, if you have any say in the matter —  I know that survivors who have lost their loved ones to suicide find comfort in the idea that they don't, and I certainly don't want to argue with them. But we aren't automatons. We have free will. We can resist bad impulses. Tu ne cede malis, as Virgil writes. "Yield not to evil."
     The overarching message: enjoy every sandwich, best you can, long as you can, as Warren Zevon said when asked what cancer taught him.
     Speaking of cancer's lessons. Bill Zehme died a couple weeks ago. After I wrote his obit, I did what I believe every writer would want done to mark his passing — pulled down one of his books, Intimate Strangers, and started to read. Checking the inscription first, which startled me with its warmth. He was such a kind man. 
     Beginning with his 1995 profile on Sharon Stone, because it contains what I think it the best quote ever extracted from a celebrity (though I can't say for certain, since I haven't read every celebrity profile; in fact, I hardly read them at all, except for Bill's, which were masterpieces).
     The star of "Basic Instinct" arranged to have his-and-her massages with Zehme at her home.
     "Oh, look! It's your butt!" she playfully says, while they are under the masseuse's sheets. "I saw your butt."
     "You did not!" Bill countered, then writes: "Thinking fast, I said that I've seen hers, too."
     "Who hasn't?" she retorts. "Anybody with seven bucks can see my ass, buddy. What's your excuse?"
     There's something sublime about that, particularly when she adds, "Actually, it doesn't feel like they've seen my butt. That butt belongs to fictional characters, you know?"
     That's revealing, not only of Stone, but of all actors. The way they try to preserve some of their selves from public scrutiny. I suppose we all do that. While Bill getting naked with the "Basic Instinct" star gets mentioned a lot — I thought of putting it into his obituary, but didn't — even more marvelous is that, at Stone's direction, he skipped down a mountain trail with her, hand-in-hand. They baked cookies together.
     That is a life richly lived. At least on the celebrity metric. Which is not actually the yardstick by which life should be measured. I don't think Bill's passing was so deeply felt on the Chicago scene because he knew a lot of famous people and wrote about them very well. For me, I didn't care that he gave Madonna a lift in his car, impressive as that is. I doubt I ever asked him anything about that aspect of his life. 
     To me, Bill Zehme was a mensch, as my people say. He was reliable, caring, generous. He helped me when I really needed help. When I was in recovery, I'd phone him, we'd have coffee together. Bill was comforting in a world suddenly lacking in comfort. "It's a scary thing, buddy," he'd say. He got that right.
     But life gives to us, only to claw back. I was fortunate in getting lost in a mess that I could find my way out of, with time and his help. A labyrinth with a string marking the way out, something I had never noticed before, right there at my feet.
     Bill wasn't so lucky. Life served him a decade's worth of torment and an early death.
     Which, being Bill, he turned into a sharp, funny Chicago magazine piece called "What Cancer Taught Me." I'm reluctant to summarize it; just read it. His emphasis on humor. I hope I never go through chemo, but if I do, I'm spelling it "keemo," the way he did, to inject some desperately-needed silliness into the experience.
     He knew how important it is to be nice to the people helping him.
     "New people will begin to populate this key stretch of your life. Doctors. Nurses. Technicians. Orderlies. They’ll see and know things about you that you would never dream someone else would. You’d better be nice to these people. These are the most important relationships you’ll have."
     As far as previous relationships, those were deadweight holding him back. He chose to fight much of his decade-long battle without the discomfort of being under "the frightened eyes of friends."
     "I didn’t want people trying to cheer me up," he wrote, in boldface, and followed through. That was a hard choice for me to accept. I wanted to swoop in with cookies and company. I tried to respect that, even though I found it frustrating and dispiriting. I had to remind myself: this wasn't my fight, it was his. That's one lesson Bill taught: you can't choose when you die, but you can choose how.
     That said, he tried to be kind.
     "The people who are in my life, I love them more than I did before," he wrote. "Even if they don’t hear from me."
     So he was clear about that. And I decided, eventually, to trust him, and tried to remember he was adapting to a new and terrible situation. Who knows how one will respond to the dread news? Maybe I'd do the same.
     Maybe not. At the moment I imagine, being me, I'd want a conga line of friends working their way past the foot of my bed, in party hats, holding the hips of the person in front of them. Bump-bump, bump-bump, bump, "GET!" Bump-bump, bump-bump, bump, "BETTER!"
     But if I don't, I am going to make sure, at some point before the end, I call every single person I ever gave a damn about and thank them, specifically, for enhancing my time on earth, for tolerating me and talking with me and putting up with all the crap I'm sure I served up to them, in person and in print. You can't mold people to your liking — I've learned that much — but you can try to be the person you'd like for yourself. So when my turn comes, I think those farewells will be a little bit more intense, colored by the ones Bill didn't make. 
     Unless I don't — sickness and illness can change a person, and not in good ways. Ill people can become self-absorbed, perhaps by necessity. So I'm not judging them. But I don't want to emulate them either. Such is my plan anyway. Which might get quickly abandoned. Everybody has a plan, as Mike Tyson says, until they get punched in the mouth. Life punches us each in the mouth, at some point or another.
    When Bill died, I regretted his passing, especially the years and years it's been since we spoke, and felt bitter, until I thought of some comforting lines from James Fenton's threnody, "For Andrew Wood." The poem isn't perfect — some lines clunk — but the key part resonates for me. He imagines the dead, gathered in their post-mortem cave, and wonders: What do they want from us? What do the dead demand of the living? His answer:

I think the dead would want us

To weep for what they have lost.
I think that our luck in continuing
Is what would affect them most.
But time would find them generous
And less self-engrossed.
     I'm lucky. And recognition of one's luck can't help but make a person grateful. And forgiving, particularly of those less fortunate. The past 20 years, for me, have been a struggle to be kinder, more generous, and less self-engrossed. That challenge is a privilege to take on, and a plan worth clinging to, in health and in sickness. When I think of Bill Zehme, I remember so much. The first time I saw him, at John F. Kennedy Jr.'s George magazine party in 1996 at the Art Institute. I was glad to meet Kennedy, and Norman Mailer, and pleased to see Kevin Costner, and Aretha Franklin, but flat-out thrilled to finally meet Zehme. I remember us standing at the bar — in the Knickerbocker Hotel, I believe. In black tie, having escaped some unendurable dinner or event. We talked and drank — there was nobody as fun to talk with and drink with than Bill. That night, I poured my martini into his — he was 6'5, and could drink me under the table. Then turning to him, again and again, to help guide me through recovery. And the last time I saw him, when I forced him to go to dinner, even though he was sick and didn't want to, in the cracked theory that seeing me would somehow make things better for him. It didn't, and I'm sorry about that, though my heart was in the right place. As was Bill Zehme's. He had one of the biggest hearts of any man I ever met, and I only wish I could have helped him at the end in a fraction of the way he once helped me.


  1. I have struggled inordinately with the death of friends since the first one when I was twelve. Run over skitching . Never really found the ability to compartmentalize death. Have had long talks about grieving with my colleague, an observant Jew. The traditions of your religion are comforting and help, even demand the mourner to move forward with their live as a duty. I respect that. Still , find it difficult.

    Thanks for this piece

  2. In this season of religious celebrations with death, salvation and resurrection as the plot foundations, you may have given the best meditation on living. It’s one I’ll think of for a long time with repeated readings. Thank you.

  3. So beautiful, these thoughts. Honoring passages, holding pain gently…sharing vulnerability is the solace we need to give, receive. Changes everything when it all gets scary. “There is the land of the living and the land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” (Thornton Wilder)

  4. I found this piece extremely touching. I hope I can be the mother, sister , friend or neighbor that people think of in this way. I keep trying….EGD!

  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. You've put words to many things that to many are just raw emotions and sleepless thoughts.

  6. What do the dead expect of us? Warren Zevon, again, said it best: Keep me in your heart for awhile.

  7. Quite recently I lost my closest friend of over fifty years. We were college roommates and remained tight until he suffered for months while waiting for a heart transplant that never happened.
    It has affected me more than the loss of my parents as it was their time and their spirits have remained with me. Losing Mitch has taken away a part of my day to day living.
    I was the only one he allowed to visit outside of his immediate family. It was tough for both of us but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
    I learned that mourning may be considered selfish. Mitch is at peace. I was the one who was feeling sorry for myself. I knew he would have said something like quit being a baby and move on. I am.
    I have never experienced anything as difficult when I said goodbye, each of us knowing that would be the last time we’d see each other. I told him I loved him. He mouthed the same words.
    Thanks Neil. This piece means a lot to me.

  8. Best piece I've read by you. You're learning. Keep coming back. Miracles are in store. Paul Teodo 2/12/78 one day at a time

  9. Each time I read your writing, I love it more. In reading the comments to your column, I find that I absorbed your column differently. Instead of thinking of death, you reminded me of how much joy there is in life everyday. And how those we've met, touch our life and add color to our view of the world.

  10. Thank you for this.

    (Daily reader, very occasional commenter)

  11. A friend of Bill W.April 6, 2023 at 11:16 AM

    A wonderful read and reflection. I'm looking back a bit as I'm sober 40 years today. I sent a message to the man who helped me when sobriety was crushing me to a point when I had to ask for help. Again. I could not do it alone. I shudder to think where I'd be without his help. Probably dead, certainly alone. And as to loss, if one person thinks of me like you think of Mr. Zehme, I think my life would be considered a success. One can hope.

  12. "I still think about everyone I ever cared for, even those who did something jerkish 25 years ago and vanished. The door is always open."

    Yeah... I'm the same way. It feels like an enormous contradiction, but there it is.

    Yusef Salaam, one of the Exonerated Five, took out his ad this week, where he says he wishes no harm on the man who *repeatedly*, publicly, called for his death as a teenager. I can't do that. I would openly hope for a protracted, miserable end for someone who did that to me.

    But the boy who once left me hanging, who acted like he didn't even know me when some authority came yammering about my response to something he'd provoked, who was a terrible friend in ways beyond that, who I never spoke to again? When something occasionally brings him to mind, I hope he's a better person today, a better friend to people in his life now. As much as I probably shouldn't, I'd take his call or return his greeting if I encountered him out in the world, thirty-some years later.

  13. Great tribute, great column Neil.

  14. A high school friend and his lovely wife trusted me with their newborn twins , named me godfather for the eldest, when I was in the first months of sobriety some thirty two years ago. She had an agonizing death 12 years ago from the cancer and he died less than a year later in a single car wreck

    I never could have fully repaid them for the kindness they showed me. I continue to try
    One day at a time

  15. A compelling, deeply reflective piece and a wonderful tribute to Mr. Zehme. He must have been quite a fellow.

  16. what an elegant piece. you've clearly been thinking about this for a while and in doing so, gave all of us something to think about as well. thanks.

  17. Your mention of suicide reminded me of something that Studs Terkel wrote, twenty years ago. He quoted a devout Quaker, who said: "Part of your life is a part of the lives of everyone else who loves you and who cares about you. If you kill yourself, you kill that part of them that they have invested in you. As a partner, friend, relative, sibling, parent, or whatever. And that's more than's murder." Something to think about when the urge strikes.

    I showed this piece to my wife, who lost one of her first cousins in February. They grew up very close, like brother and sister, and also lived next door to each other as kids. Six weeks from cancer diagnosis to cremation and burial. She's been very stoic since he passed, but I know she's hurting inside.

    He wouldn't see anyone in hospice anyone except his immediate family, so she didn't get to say good-bye. But she did recite "The Cremation of Sam McGee" at his funeral, as he'd asked her to do years ago. My wife told me that reading about Bill Zehme's final days reminded her again of her Cousin Jimmy. He didn't want anyone to cheer him up, either. That poem was one of the few requests he made.

    Thanks again for this, Mr. S. It was one of your best, Mr. S, and well worth the wait.

  18. Thank you for a beautiful, heartfelt column!

  19. This is the Steinberg I love to read. Hands down still the best columnist in Chicago.

  20. I was very moved by this piece. Thank you, Neil!


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