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remembering Ira…

Ira 1983A couple of months ago, by way of a random Facebook post, I learned of the very sudden, too-soon death of a dear friend. I met Ira in the 1970s, when we both lived in Seattle, and again in the 80s, when we both lived in Los Angeles. For most of the years since, he had lived in Israel. Our contact was occasional, by e-mail or on Facebook, but always with the warmth of old friends. I was — am still — stunned and saddened by his death.

Yesterday, unbidden, this memory of Ira popped into my head. It was 30 years ago: 1984. It was a time when surgery meant you stayed in the hospital for some days, and that’s where I was. I felt emotionally and physically depleted and sort of afraid of myself — of the tubes dripping into my arm, the staples holding me together — as if at any moment I might leak or tear or break into pieces.

I didn’t really want to see (or, more to the point, be seen by) anyone, had left instructions for friends not to visit, and mostly they hadn’t. But not Ira. He showed up with his big smile, slipped off his shoes, crawled right into the hospital bed with me and gave me the biggest hug. He didn’t treat me like something fragile or dangerous. Disheveled, unfamiliar to myself, I was, to Ira, simply his friend.

It may have been one of the sweetest things anyone ever did for me and it makes me so, so sad to know that he’s no longer in the world. Thanks, Ira.


phoneOff to college, living away from home for the first time, I was unformed, my cell walls entirely permeable. I was innocent of the world and ecstatic to be released from the fierce, unsympathetic guardianship of my parents.

It was the six of us — three sets of roommates, the four girls, the two boys — not always together but always pulled back into the chemistry of the six.

Jose was not so much blond as fair — pale skin, pale hair, clean shaven in the places where pale whiskers grew in reluctant dustings on his face. His eyes were luminous blue-gray behind round lenses set in nearly colorless frames. His voice was deep and soft and we would all lean in to hear what he was saying. He serenaded us with his guitar and awakened us to the rhythms of poetry.

We were all friends, all, perhaps, a bit in love with each other, all tentatively learning the Braille of our bodies and hearts. We tried on philosophies like new clothes, experimented with the taste of political rhetoric and shared the agonizing secrets of our childhoods.

Jose and I talked for hours in the empty dining hall, whispered in the library, trekked along the cliffs and followed the meandering line of foam where the waves lapped the sand. Each step, each word, carried us deeper into the landscape of trust. I bemoaned my innocence, he beguiled me with experience — titillating stories of conquest and desire.

We sat in the lifeguard tower and watched the moon set and he took my face between his warm hands and kissed me as tenderly as I have ever been kissed. He said, ‘You’re the person I really wanted to be with tonight,’ and I realized those were the words I had been listening for my entire life.

And yet, we weren’t two. We were six — friends with classes and dates and discoveries apart from one another, our partings as gentle as our connections.

After two years, I left for Berkeley and our friendships continued on paper, Jose’s letters full of poetry, cynicism, humor and hope. We all graduated, and by some numerical misfortune, Jose was drafted, and then, somehow, after an interval of bitterly funny letters, undrafted — something to do with his knees. And then a letter from one of the six: Jose was dead. The words a razor slash that forever sliced my life into Before and After.

Among the remaining five, we knew only this: that Jose had acted with intent. That he was not deterred by the requisite waiting period. That he waited, and he collected the gun he had purchased, and he turned it on himself.

I went back and searched his letters for clues. There were none. No dire warnings or pleadings, no strange new slant to his handwriting, no subtly couched goodbyes.

Jose had shown me that what happened between men and women could be shaped by tenderness and friendship. Now he introduced me to the colorless panorama of grief.

I could not share the pain of this loss with my parents; I had no vocabulary for the death of a friend. It was too acute and intimate for any nostrums of sympathy, so it sat, a sharp stone in my gut, unmentioned.

Two weeks after Jose died, hollowed by loss, I went for a planned visit home. Over dinner one evening, my mother said brightly, ‘Oh, I forgot to tell you. Your friend Jose called a few weeks ago. I didn’t want to give him your phone number without asking you. He called back one other time. I think I wrote down his number. Do you want it?’

© j.i. kleinberg

the entire mourning…

Les at 80
My father at 86 was strong and solid as ever, still carving, still reading, still making toys, and still taking care of my mother as she slipped inexorably into the slow twist of dementia. In spite of her own decline, Dorothy was able to nag him about his ‘little cough,’ which led him to tests of increasing degrees of unpleasantness and then to a horrible diagnosis: lung cancer.

I had accompanied him to these appointments and tests, had heard for myself the words from the doctor’s mouth, had sat with my father as he attempted to shape this into something my mother could grasp. She was appropriately solemn, but it was never clear to me how much she understood of his illness, his treatment or, six months later, his death.

It was a Friday, that day we sat together at their kitchen table, where we and they had shared so many thousands of meals. On Saturday, my friend would be married in a lavish hotel ceremony and I was to be a member of the bridal party. The wedding was 120 miles away, accompanied by various pre- and post- parties, an overnight in a motel and the drive to and from.

My father insisted that I must go. We talked about it. There really was nothing I could do for them, he said. They had to absorb this new information and we would begin the next phase together on Monday. His only request was that I refrain, for the moment, from telling anyone. I must go.

So I went. I wanted to go, to be there for my friend, but I was entirely unprepared for the tsunami of grief that struck me the moment I left my parents’ house. Packing for the trip, driving, sitting alone in the bleak motel room, I wept uncontrollably. Whatever might happen, whatever treatments or reprieves might be in store, my heart was not filled with hope. Without knowing, I knew.

Bleary, smiling tight-jawed and silent, I went to the parties and stood up for my friend in my unflattering dark blue dress and dyed-to-match shoes. My aunt and uncle — whom I dearly loved, who did not know this awful news about their favorite cousin — were there, but I could not talk with them. I knew that if my uncle wrapped me in his fierce hug I would lose my resolve. I tried not to look anyone in the eye, sat for a long time in the restroom, then in a quiet corner of the hotel’s garden. As soon as I could, I escaped and began the tearful drive home.

My father’s daughter, I had believed in stoicism. Now, whatever was in store, I would need to be strong, present, supportive.

Unfair as it was to the bride, it was a necessary weekend of grief. Until long after my father was gone, and even for some time after my mother died, six years later, I thought of that weekend as “the entire mourning” for my father. But of course I was wrong about that.

I never asked to see photos of the wedding.

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