Thanksgiving 2023: Absent Friends

This Thanksgiving, I am reflecting on absent friends. I was able to say goodbye to some; in other cases neither of us realized we would soon be parted.

Thanksgiving 2023: Absent Friends

“One of life’s regrets is how few goodbyes you say compared to the number of people you never see again.”
Robert Brault

Here is a short list of folks I thought about in the last month. Some I was able to say goodbye to in some fashion. Others disappeared suddenly.

Ogden Lily died suddenly during a routine procedure. We had a 20-minute call one evening about two months before he died that felt quite personal. We spoke about our children graduating and entering the workforce, both worried that the Silicon Valley housing market would price them out of living here.  I wrote about Ogden in “Ogden Lilly 1948-2017.”

“Fear accompanies the possibility of death. Calm shepherds it’s certainty.”
FarscapeFamily Ties

Matt Orput was in his early 30s on a business trip in Malaysia for Cypress when he fell ill and was ultimately diagnosed with lymphoma. He was a slender and athletic nonsmoker. I was not surprised when the chemo worked, and he recovered. And then a year or so later, I was visiting him in hospital after it turned out that it had not. A second round of chemo provided no relief. He was strangely calm, and we visited for an hour or so. He passed away a few weeks later. I remember listening to Enya’s Boadicea several dozen times the evening I found out.

Absent FriendsTom Herbert was another skinny, non-smoking athlete who came down with cancer. He told me once, “You understand how witch doctors work when you are talking to your oncologist and he looks at you and says ‘you need to put your affairs in order, you have less than six months.'” He changed doctors; the new ones were more aggressive. At one point, they called him in for one more lung X-ray, and he assumed it had spread to his lungs, and they just wanted to confirm. Then the doctor told him, “It worked, we cannot find any trace of it!” He said he felt such a wave of relief that he threw up in the wastebasket next to the desk. But it returned a few years later. He planned his own funeral, which he intended to be more of a party. He had assumed that since he was at peace, all of the attendees would be as well. But we were still processing his demise.

William Linvill was a professor of mine in college. He had a heart attack, and I visited him at Stanford Hospital. He was in a new cardiac monitoring ward, and it seemed like a visit to Dr. McCoy’s sickbay with remote monitors tracking vital signs for a dozen patients in a central desk area. He talked about all of the changes he was going to make as a result of the experience. And he did: he changed his diet, took things a little more easy, and exercised more. I had the good fortune to visit him on a weekend at his home and was surprised that he had back-to-back meetings. Instead of meeting him on campus, his visitors made the short trek to his Portola Valley home. We had a long visit, and two days later, he had another heart attack during his morning swim and died in the pool. I have written about William Linvill in “Giving Thanks” and “Burn Your Boats But Not Your Bridges.”

Mark Duncan was a good friend who had several challenging health problems. He had been in a bad car accident that left him with an artificial hip. He later developed a slow-moving bone cancer, so his doctors balanced fighting an infection that had developed at the interface between the implant metal and the bone with suppressing the bone cancer. He was on a first-name basis with the nurses at the infusion clinic for years. We would meet regularly for lunch. One day, he called me and said, “this may be it.” He had a viral brain infection that they were either going to cure in a few weeks or not. We had two or three long phone calls over the next two weeks, and then I got an email from his sister that he had passed. He was a clear thinker and very matter-of-fact about his problems: he kept moving forward until he couldn’t.

Uncle John: The summer I turned 16, my brother and I went fishing and camping with him. It was a lot of fun. I visited him twice during college and had great times. I always meant to call or write or visit him again. Perhaps I did call once or twice. One day, a few years later, he was dead of a heart attack. I have written John Murphy in Uncle’s Day

Gary Smith was a friend for more than 25 years. We met in 1989 when I was at 3Com, and he was at LSI Logic. Our first conversation was frank and direct. We agreed to disagree but became fast friends and met for coffee or lunch a few times a year. I visited him in the ICU with a severe infection and a few weeks later at his home. He had a long tether of plastic tubing that allowed him to walk around his house and get oxygen; I felt like a fish in an aquarium being visited by a deep sea diver. At one point, he lay on the couch for a short nap. He was so still that I had this sense he was lying in a coffin and that this might be the last time I would see him. But we met for lunch perhaps two months later in early 2014, and he drove himself and did not bring any oxygen: he was thinner but full of energy and good humor. It was like nothing had ever happened aside from some weight loss. I have written about Gary three times: Coffee Break with Gary SmithGary Smith 1941-2015, and Gary Smith on Bebop As a Model For Innovation.

Last Words

One thing I valued about all of these friends was their willingness to confront me honestly. It’s not easy to disagree with someone who loves a good argument–and being right–as much as I do. But each of them was willing on more than one occasion to suggest why my current course of action might be a mistake–and likely consequences I had overlooked or discounted. Because it’s so hard to make old friends, I will cherish those I have and content myself with making new friends.

At a certain point–a point I have reached–you look into your family history to see what has killed your relatives. In my case, it’s almost all heart attack, aneurysm, or stroke. You can look at that in different ways. It led me to a realization: I will probably have little time to say final goodbyes, so I should make what amends I can now and minimize my future need to reconcile, apologize, or reconnect.

What we see in an old family photo is not just a still moment in time but a moment when there was still time.
Robert Brault

You are in that picture now–perhaps they are taking another one today. Don’t wait to reconnect with folks who have made a difference in your life.

“You wonder if somewhere on Thanksgiving Day there is a gathering of the departed where they raise a glass to those left behind.”

Robert Brault

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Image Credit: “Mailbox” © Sven Birkerts, used with permission.

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