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Friendship and Aging

A Friend Says Goodbye

In late August of 1979, I was still reeling from the accidental death of my fifteen-year-old son six months earlier. I decided to attend an Esalen “Radix” workshop in Big Sur, California. The Radix people believed if we allow unexpressed emotions to remain locked in our bodies muscular armor builds and restricts the flow of positive “Radix” energy (aka “Qi”) through our bodies. My hope was to emotionally unblock, get past the initial mourning stage (I could no longer cry) and free up some energy. 

The workshop leader was a fifty eight year old ex-businessman named Clair. He had attended a Radix workshop a few years earlier and the experience altered his life’s view. He left his high-powered sales management position, trained with Charles Kelly, the founder of Radix to become a certified Radix teacher.

As group leader, Clair was confident without being arrogant, empathetic without being unctuous and had an appealing old glove quality. I immediately trusted him and placed myself in his hands. It was a seven-day workshop and I was one of fourteen participants. Each day’s Radix therapy activities involved “mattress work” where we group members took turns lying on a mattress while Clair sensitively and effectively guided us through exercises designed to free up blocked emotions. The week was powerful and very helpful. I left feeling much more emotionally free and finally began to reawaken emotionally.

Because of our rich connection at the workshop, Clair and I became friends and have stayed in touch over the years by phone and by visits to his home in Ashland, Oregon when I attended plays at the Shakespeare festivals. A skilled carpenter and builder, he designed and built a round mountaintop home with a second story great-room which allowed a 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains. Clair is a generous host and staying at his mountain home has been both inspiring and comfortable.

After the challenge and satisfaction of building his mountaintop home wore off, Clair, fully retired and in his late seventies, invested all of his retirement savings in an old office building in downtown Ashland and then proceeded to  refurbish it. This included designing and opening an attractive and successful restaurant. It seemed that each time I visited Clair I discovered another of his talents. When I expressed concerned that he had risked all of his retirement security on such a venture. He responded to my concern, saying, “It’s all about risk. If there is no risk, there is no passion or excitement. I’m not willing to just stand around waiting to die, Ron.” These conversations with Clair, and the life style he was modeling, led me to question some of my values and led to important insights about living my life with more passion and risk. Clair was not only my friend; he was also teaching me by example.

One week ago, I received a phone call from Clair, now ninety-two years old. His voice is unmistakable and remarkably similar to that of the actor Alan Arkin—rich with authenticity and warmth. Clair opened our conversation by saying, “Ron, I’m calling you for a reason. Picture a Canadian goose about to land in a lake after a long, cross continental flight. He lands on the water smoothly and gracefully and prepares for a long rest. That is me. I’m in hospice now and I’m ready for the next step in this fantastic journey called life.” (Clair sprinkles all of his talk with such Esalen, “humpot” jargon—it is part of his charm) He explained he is in the final stages of prostate cancer, it has spread into his bones and he has fewer than six months to live.

He thanked me for my friendship and said he was calling those folks in his life with whom he had made a genuine, loving connection and I was on the list. I told him I was both honored and appreciative he had called. We talked for a while about life and how short and beautiful it is. He confessed he had always tried to live his live ethically but he had not always been emotionally available with those he loved. He wished he had been better at it but he was trying through these final phone calls to go out on a “real” note. I could hear the effects of the pain medication in his voice but he was lucid and totally present during the conversation.

Before he finished our call, he said, “I love you, Ron—you helped make the ride a special one.” I said, “I feel the same way, Clair.” As I hung up, I felt the tears and the pain build and experienced a peculiar mix of gratitude and sadness.

I have had two similar conversations with close friends. Like Clair, both had come to terms with their impending deaths and were able to say goodbye to those they loved. Each call was, to me, a gift. Yes—each was painful but I am grateful I had the opportunity to say goodbye to my friends. When my final days arrive I hope I have the opportunity and the courage to do the same with those I love.


Keeper of the Memories

Note: I recently received a touching and thoughtful email from Dr. Rod Skager of Monterey, CA, in response to my articles about aging and friendship.


A year ago in March I lost my two closest, lifelong friends within two weeks of each other (Ralph Montee, a college roommate and Sy Simon, a graduate school buddy). They are irreplaceable. So is something else that goes along with close friendships—the experiences that close friends share together.

The other day I was reminiscing about the summer between our sophomore and junior college years when several of us, including Ralph, worked at the infamous potash plant in sweltering Trona, California, only 30 miles or so from Death Valley. There were vivid experiences on that job, things we talked about during the rest of our many get-togethers over the years. We had lots of laughs going over how miserable it was and even shared the stories with our families.

There was the insidious rash that developed while running centrifugals extracting potash from a caustic chemical stew the company pumped out of Searles dry lake. The most hilarious memory (in retrospect) was both the best and worst experience we had together: shoveling potash dust from an elevator pit in 110 degree plus heat. We took turns, one on top hauling up the bucket and the other down in the knee-deep dust. We joked about it at the time and for the rest of our lives. It was an unforgettable achievement and we did it together.

Thinking about the guys I shared that time with, I realize that I am now the only survivor of the six fellow University of Redlands students who worked in Trona that summer. I’m the keeper of the memories of events, friends, and the experiences we shared—of “the way we were” in those days. 

I am grateful to be the survivor, especially because four years ago I had good reason to expect that I would not still be around in September of 2008. This is something that aging assigns to us—a sense of responsibility to remember and thereby do homage to people one cared about so very much.

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.

A Friend’s Birthday

I spoke yesterday with Clair, a longtime friend. He was celebrating his 88th birthday and I called to congratulate him. We can always pick up where we left off despite long periods without contact.

I asked him how he liked being in his late 80s and he said, “Speaking as someone who’s always needed to have a project, I’ve recently decided to end all achievement for achievement’s sake and relax. I find it’s nice for a change to stop swimming so hard in life’s ocean and to sit on the shore and just observe it.”

I asked him what he was doing for fun. He said, “I’m dancing free-form to modern music three or four times each week. I’ve been doing this for years, and over that time, I’ve learned to dance with abandon—without feeling self-conscious. I let the music take my body where it wants to. I simply react to it.”

I said, “That sounds like a freeing experience.” He said, “Yes, it truly is. However, someone in the dance studio videotaped me a few weeks ago and posted it on YouTube. When I watched it, I was shocked. I saw this white-haired guy with an old body doing this strange dance. I was struck by the difference between how I feel when I’m dancing and when I observe myself doing it. The discrepancy is shocking.”

Clair laughed with good humor as he shared his experience and I laughed with him. He was not at all embarrassed about it; he simply found it fascinating and thought provoking. I knew exactly how he felt because I had a similar story to tell. 

“Clair, two years ago, my daughter, a fine singer, asked me to play drums with her band at a jazz concert. As I played with her, I felt the same musical experience I did when I was a young man playing drums full-time. I felt like a hip young musician playing swinging music. Then, my daughter sent me a DVD of the concert and I watched it. I liked the way the music sounded, but I was shocked to see a white-haired, portly H & R Block salesman sitting in my place behind the drums. Like you, I was surprised at the discrepancy between the person I imagined playing drums and the reality.”

Clair said, “Exactly! That is it exactly!” We laughed and commiserated, and then we went on to other topics and enjoyed a nice chat. After I hung up the phone, I felt the warm and pleasant sense of having reconnected in a satisfying way with my good friend.

When I met Clair, he was 58 and I was 42. Like a mature jazz musician, Claire has moved with life’s flow and has gracefully improvised in reaction to its ever-changing demands. Conversation with him is always interesting because he’s connected to the present in a creative way. It has been a joy to share his journey and an inspiration to see how he has embraced growing older. 

As my exchange with Clair demonstrates, one of the great gifts that a long-term friendship offers us is the fun of sharing the aging experience. When Joe Williams, the great jazz and blues singer, turned 80, I asked how he was handling aging. Laughing, he said, “As the saying goes, it’s not for sissies, but I must say, it sure beats the alternative.”

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.