Cemetery visit revives memory of a close friend lost too early


A cemetery baking in the sun. Heat waves rise from an asphalt road that oozes past shimmering headstones.

A plane roars overhead. In the working-class neighborhood across the way -- the blond brick homes are identical except for the initials on their aluminum awnings -- the streets are empty.

A prairie wind whips up a brief blast-furnace breeze. Cicadas chirp unseen in the dust-covered bushes.

FTC A cemetery worker sits in the shade of a monument, a little embarrassed that he has been seen.

A young girl walks alone down the cemetery road. She wears red shorts and a black and white Jack Daniel's T-shirt. A good sign. If you have to dress up to go to the cemetery, you probably will not go to the cemetery much.

The grave of my friend. Two years old and I have never seen it before. A shameful thing. A funeral missed.

I have a hard and fast rule that I break all the time: Never miss a

wedding or a funeral. No matter how far you have to travel, no matter how inconvenient, you must go.

In the case of the weddings, you will never be forgiven if you don't.

In the case of the funerals, you will never forgive yourself.

I missed Alan's funeral for that best-of-excuses in today's world: I had a non-refundable airline ticket for my vacation.

Everybody understood. Even I pretended to. That Alan would have understood is of no help. He would have understood anything. "Stop making such a big deal," he would have said. "Go on your vacation. I'll still be dead when you get back."

A man without enemies. I never knew such a thing was possible until I met Alan. I was always offering to lend him some of mine.

We met in college. He was on the business side of the student paper and I was on the writing side. If it hadn't been for him I never would have learned that if somebody doesn't sell the ads, somebody else doesn't get to save the world.

We both met our wives on the paper. We all stayed close friends.

Can I say something bad about the guy? You bet: Alan smoked. He smoked so much, he would not tell me how much. I kept asking him.

"It depends on how many hours I'm awake," he finally said. "OK? Do you get it now?"

I got it. I would clip health articles, send him ads about cures, talk to him about how much money he could save by quitting. But anybody who tells you smoking is not a severe addiction doesn't know what he is talking about.

Alan had his first heart attack when he was 25.

His wife stood crying outside the cardiac unit.

"Is it your father?" a nurse asked.

"It's my husband!" she wailed.

I visited Alan in the hospital four or five times. I later learned that when he was defending me to others (being my friend usually means defending me to others) he would say: "Say what you want about the guy, he visited me in the hospital every day."

That's how he remembered it. That's how he wanted to remember it.

He had a congenital heart condition. A nerve sent out bad impulses to his heart. But the doctor ordered him to stop smoking.

I don't know how long Alan actually stopped smoking when he got out of the hospital. I doubt it was a week. But he cut down. He would not tell me how far down, though he hinted it might be as low as three packs a day.

About a year after he got out of the hospital, we were having dinner at a restaurant and I noticed he was getting increasingly irritated with me as the meal went on.

What's wrong? I asked.

"You didn't even notice," he said. "You're always complaining about my smoking, and you didn't even notice."

Notice what? I said. You're smoking right now.

"But only between courses!" he said. "Not during! And you didn't even notice."

The next time you have a heart attack, I said, I am not visiting you in the hospital.

"Yes, you will," he said. "Yes, you will."

Five bucks says I won't, I said.

"You're on," he said.

Alan owes me five bucks. He died two years ago of a second heart attack. There was no chance to visit him in the hospital. This one crushed him like a vise in his sleep. I hope to God he was asleep. They found him in bed the next morning, anyway.

I didn't go to the funeral. I had these vacation tickets. Non-refundable. Everyone understood.

Alan was 39.

I look around the ground and find a small stone and leave it on Alan's grave. A tradition. For some reason, the cicadas stop chirping.

You want to hear a funny thing? I still see him on the street. I see him looking in a store window, a cigarette burning in his hand, and I take a step toward him and ready the words in my mind: Hey, you bum, was this some kind of joke or something? We thought you were dead!

And then he turns around and it is not him.

Maybe if I had gone to the funeral, I would have learned the answers: Why the good die young. Why we do things that we think hurt only ourselves when really they hurt all who love us.

Maybe I would have learned about those things if I had gone to the funeral. Maybe somebody has answers like that.

Not me. I don't get it. I really don't.

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