Thursday, January 15, 2015

I mean it. Mend those fences NOW

For the second time in three weeks, I find myself trying to express the sense of loss I feel over losing someone important in my life.

First my friend Cindy lost her battle with leukemia. Now, I'm trying to come to grips with losing a man who has been in my life for over 40 years, most of them as a mentor to me. My friend Dick Manville died a few days ago at the age of 88 and I miss him terribly.

Before we moved to Maine in 1998, he was closer to me than any other adult figure I've ever had in my life, including my own parents. It wasn't moving to Maine that changed that, by the way, it was me and my stupid pride. Shortly after we moved here, Dick's father died. Instead of calling him as soon as I found out, I put it off and put it off. By the time I did call, it didn't feel right, even to me. It sounded contrived, though I didn't mean it to be. I got the feeling Dick was disappointed, though I don't remember him saying anything that would make me think that. The truth is, I behaved poorly towards someone who deserved much better, and I knew it.

But, hey, those things can be fixed. Twenty-six years of closeness doesn't disappear because of one bad interaction. All I needed to do was call, or, heck, even write and tell him what I thought, apologize, and then we could laugh through it, just as he had helped me through so many of the tougher experiences in my life. And while I was at it, I could have told him how much he meant to me; how much I loved him; and, because of the way he had always treated me, how many people I came to treat with grace and respect.

Yup. All I had to do was call or write. But, you know... One year became three. Three years became six... No one ever says there's a statute of limitations on making those kinds of amends, but, as far as I'm concerned, there is. My pride swelled to a size that seemed unswallowable. It would be too embarrassing after all that time. He might say something that would hurt my feelings. Why shouldn't he? My behavior was a textbook example of men behaving badly.
This was a man, who along with his wife, Carol, allowed us to use his beautiful home on Cape Cod for our honeymoon. In the years that he and Carol had owned the property, we were, at that time anyway, the only non-family members to whom they had offered that wonderful gift. Not only would he accept no payment, he met with me two or three times to be sure I knew the ins and outs of the house, and all the best places to go on the Cape to save us time, since we only had a week. So how could calling him to apologize become something too big to be able to do. I do not know. I swear to God, I do not know.

I worked as a newspaper editor for Dick for 13-14 years, over three separate spans with the company. The one consistent fact in each tenure, was that I did many things that made people angry enough to call Dick to complain about me, mostly because I thought I knew more than you did and didn't hesitate to put it in the paper. The first, and worst, was after we were finally able to establish a local office for the newspaper I was editing. It literally took decades before we were able to get space in the back of a real estate office.

After we had it for a couple of weeks, I decided that would be the perfect time to write a funny column about what one of the real estate agents was going through to try to find a house for me and my family to buy. This was my first exposure to the power of the printed word, as well as how “funny” was a relative term.

Our real estate landlords were quite succinct in their reaction to the column. “We've thrown your desk in the snow. We've thrown your phone in the snow. And if Arnold walks into this office any time soon, we'll throw him in the snow.”

Dick called a meeting of the five people this most affected, including me. I was fully prepared to resign and skulk out of town. I didn't get the chance. “Well, this is bad,” Dick said, hardly overstating the situation. “Someone's going to have to fix this, and it isn't going to be me.” And, just in case there was any lingering doubt who “someone” was, he pointed to the other three not-me people in the room, one at a time, and said, “And it isn't going to be you either.”

Scared as I was, I did it, learning a very hard, but memorable, lesson about accepting responsibility. We got our desk and phone back, and I never did end up in the snow, although I may very well have set some sort of record for groveling. One the amazing things in the end, is that Dick never brought it up again. And even more than that, he never censored anything I wanted to write, no matter ho controversial. He asked only that he saw if before it ran so he could be ready when people called all upset about it. Deal.

Surely writing an email to someone who supported you like that must have been a pleasure to be able to do. Well, no. Saying that now, I feel like an even bigger idiot and my heart hurts even more for not having taken care of it.

Still, the man died and I ran out of “tomorrows.” When I heard he had been admitted to the hospital through friends on Facebook, I was able to write the letter I should have written years before and sent it to his family, priority mail, which felt tacky, but for once, my pride didn't get to make a peep.

I heard his wife had read the letter- it was actually written to both of them- and I understand she was very moved by it. I don't know if Dick heard it or not. While it did make me feel somewhat better, it still felt... inadequate, late, like a 65-year-old guy with cancer trying desperately to fix something that couldn't be fixed. And maybe that's what it was. I don't know if Dick knew I had cancer or not. There was a time when, after Sheri and my friend Maria, he would have been the first to know. That time was not now.

One of the first things I wrote when I knew I had multiple myeloma, before my doctors were able to at least get it under control, was that you, readers, should mend fences with old friends and/or family members while you still could; that to wait was a big mistake. Well, I guess I can now tell you I was right; it's great advice. Frankly, brothers and sisters, I can also tell you that being right isn't what it used to be.
There are a variety of versions of the story that gives this blog its name. The pony is the constant in all of them. A man is on his way to a party when he comes across a young boy shoveling ass over tea kettle at an enormous mountain of manure. The man asks the child if he wouldn't rather go with him to the party than shovel all that poop. The kid says, “No way man. With all that poop... there must be a pony in there somewhere.”