A light went out the other day.
A friend from college succumbed after a lengthy struggle with cancer. His demise was not unexpected, but word of his death rocked me nonetheless.
In life, you meet a lot of people. Relatively few leave a mark on you. My friend did, pretty much from when we met, through the college soccer team that I wrote about and he played on. Even as a freshman, he exuded a low-key cool that I, as a senior, certainly did not.
His lasting influence on me, these many years later, can be found in the music I enjoy. His collection of jazz records became my music appreciation class. Had he not shared his knowledge and enthusiasm for that music, I likely never would have developed an interest that I have nurtured for more than four decades.
I digested the news of his passing, and with my eyes a bit wet and cloudy, retreated to my office and to articles needing my attention.
I often listen to music while I write. Now it felt necessary.
There was no question what I would play first. Listening to the Miles Davis album “Kind of Blue” always reminds me of the friend who introduced me to that and other recordings I once owned on vinyl and now have stored on my computer and phone. The piano was my friend’s musical forte, so the next selections were Oscar Peterson and McCoy Tyner.
I’m not naive. At a certain age, the deaths of people you know and people you once knew come with greater frequency. Some you note in passing. Others give you a momentary pause. Some hurt.
Even as his condition deteriorated, my friend demonstrated an admirable capacity to make the most of the time he had — a lesson for the rest of us.
He continued, as he could, the work that made him a globally recognized expert in the field of freshwater science and conservation and relished exploration of the wilds he enjoyed. The research he did, the solutions he conceived and the students he mentored were one way my friend cared for his chosen corner of the world.
At his funeral, which I was able to watch online, the rabbi spoke of the comfort found in memories. In the days after I learned of my friend’s passing, I tapped a vein of memories, including his presence when my wife and I married.
I often see on social media people who, as they mourn a loss, urge the rest of us to let those we care about know this while they live, rather than regretting having not done so when they are gone.
I called my friend before our trip to Chicago over the Memorial Day weekend, but the risk to his health ruled out an in-person visit.
Then, a few weeks ago, while we were running errands, something caused me to think of him. I stepped out of a store and called. We spoke for 15-20 minutes. He was in good humor, despite his discomfort, but up front about his prognosis.
In the back of my mind was the awful thought that I did not know if we would speak again.
I needed to tell him how much I appreciated the effect he had on me. He asked what I was referring to and I replied: the music. I joked that I cannot read a score, play a note, or discuss the finer points of a composition, but thanks to him, I know what I like.
I told him about a recent jazz concert here in Atlanta, possibly the best I have heard anywhere, by a renowned New York-based trio of musicians on piano, bass and drums.
And I reminded him of a cold, snowy Thanksgiving night many years ago, when he picked me up and we drove to a nearly empty club in Chicago for what felt like a private concert by a saxophone player he favored.
A week or so before my friend died, I wrote his name at the top of a pad on my desk — a reminder to check in with him. Then a mutual friend contacted me with the sad news.
Whatever pain I felt was balanced by tapping into memories, listening to the music he had turned me on to and knowing that, while he could hear it, I had told him, “Thank you.”