People who die young long have a long half-life. They linger in the hearts left behind for years, sometimes longer than they walked on earth. They are youth frozen in perfection, and cautionary specters that we humans can falter well before our time.
My college roommate and fraternity brother died twenty-five years ago. He was thirty two. John was a solid guy even in his teens, a hockey player with a comforting roll around his waist. He used to grab it with both hands and shake, look down and greet his fat, “How are you today, hockey gut?” In the body obsessed 1970’s when so many of us were trying to resculpt ourselves, John loved his girth.
John brimmed with kindergarten energy. We sat at the huge partner’s deck in our room, studying opposite one another; he building carbon models with his organic chemistry kit, me building architectural ones. When his big hands grew frustrated with the thin tubes he had to connect to illustrate various bonds, he would jump out of his seat, shout that the world needed bigger molecules, and erupt into a wild dance that illustrated molecular attraction at a grand scale. If Monday night house meetings got boring, John would jump out of his seat, sing ‘Little Bunny Foo Foo’ and designate some wary upperclassman for a bop upon the head.
John was enthralled with Rock‘em Sock‘em Robots, he clodded his way down the hall with tight, muscle bound fists, and sang the jingle more than I could endure. One Christmas I cajoled our fraternity brothers to ramp up John’s Secret Santa gift; we pitched in and gave him his own Rock’em rink. No one over the age of six ever loved a toy more.
What really set John apart from the rest of us was his girlfriend. He did not loiter at Wellesley or Simmons mixers and date eager coeds. Somehow he met a secretary a few years his senior with perfect blond hair and a husky laugh. There was something exotic about this creature with a regular job and plenty of money slumming around the fraternity house, or sometimes having us to her tiny Cambridge studio for drinks. Marilyn never cooked. She said she ate one meal a day at lunch, though I believe she thrived on daiquiris. Marilyn loved John and put up with the rest of us, and he loved her in return.
In the years after college, the only delight John took in the consulting firm where he was ‘terribly bored and terribly overpaid’ was to develop a detailed algorithm of how to alternate trips to the drinking fountain and the men’s room so that one biologically necessitated the other at the utmost frequency. He was generous with his wealth. I have never been so indebted to another as when John and Marilyn, my wife and I spent a Saturday evening ambling the North End and dining in a chic restaurant. We ordered specials with no prices attached, drank too much wine, and when the bill arrived I realized I did not have enough cash to cover our share. I was still building models, albeit larger ones, in graduate school. Before I could even contemplate working off dinner in the dish room, John swooped the bill away and announced, “When you make as much as I do you have to pay the full bill.”
John broke up with Marilyn. He wanted children and she did not. There is no compromise to that dilemma. From that moment a leaden sadness gripped the man. He met a beautiful, conniving women sunbathing herself on the Esplanade. Five months later they married. Many of us flew in from wherever our first jobs had taken us and to a person we knew there was something wrong about Deborah. A few of us debated whether we ought to say something to John, but we were too young to know that sometimes friendship involved hard conversations. We stood by as he walked down the aisle in the arms of that manipulative woman. My silence then is one of my greatest regrets; I hope that should I ever go so off track my friends will intervene and say, hey guy, open your eyes.
I didn’t see John for two years. Deborah got pregnant, John got tired and listless. Deborah had a baby, John got cancer. I don’t remember what kind and it hardly matters, it spread so fast.
I returned to Boston in 1986 and saw John my first week back, a gnome of a man, four inches shorter, with a hunched back where radiation brittled several vertebrae until they crushed, and an enlarged skull sprouting a the few spare hairs that had not fallen away from chemo. He spoke the jargon of the sick and held out some hope for remission.
Remission occurred, which only made things worse. Deborah had tended John in an acceptable way while he declined, but once she understood that he might live for years instead of months, her true fangs emerged. Her golden boy with deep pockets had turned into a liability and she wanted nothing to do with him. She physically abused him, pushed him down the stairs one night and broke more bones. She filed for divorce, he moved out. She took me to lunch to plead her case, but I did not believe a word. She filed a petition of child abuse based on nothing, and for a year John could only see Katie in supervised visits. Deborah is the most evil person I have ever known. I doubt I could have influenced John before he married the witch, but I have to live with the fault of not having even tried.
They got divorced, John got to see Katie again, but he deteriorated. He could not live on his own and so moved back to Arvada Colorado to live, and die, with his parents. The romantic in me always thought that John was too rich a child to be a satisfied man; that the grown-up world irritated him so much it festered a tumor.
I travel to Arvada every year. My brother Tim lives there, in the far northwest part of town just before the houses give way to a high plateau and the foothills of the Rockies. I usually go in July to ride in the Courage Classic, a cycling fund raiser for the Denver Children’s Hospital. Tim and I take practice rides through the wide open areas, past the wildlife refuge around Standley Lake. I think of John whenever I go there. I hope that his soul is content in the wide spaces.
But on the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death, I am forced to reassess. I recently read Full Body Burden, Kirsten Iversen’s cautionary tale about growing up in Arvada in the shadow of Rocky Flats Nuclear Arms Facility. It is a perceptive memoir woven into a disturbing description of how we built plutonium devices with cavalier disregard for human safety and environmental devastation. It is a story of a young girl and her family living in ignorance and denial, government support of corporate malfeasance, people dying too often and too young, with a very unsatisfying end, for though Rocky Flats is now closed, the patterns of destruction to people and the environment never receive acknowledgement. Our own land and our own citizens were just collateral damage of the Cold War.
Riding my bicycle around Standley Lake I would never guess that the refuge exists because the ground is too contaminated to be disturbed by construction or that while the boats skitter across the water’s surface, no one is allowed to wade along the shore and upset the bottom sludge. Breathing in that fresh mountain air, I would never imagine how many thousands of pounds of radioactive material Rocky Flats lost to the atmosphere, the soil and the water around Arvada. We absorb radiation cumulatively, and when we absorb so much it affects our metabolism, we reach full body burden.
Did John die too young because he grew up in Arvada, drank its water, and breathed its air? We will never know what combination of karma and chemistry constituted his full body burden. We do know his body gave out well before he should have gone. He is twenty-five years along in my memory, and I hope to keep John fresh in my memory for a least twenty-five more. He was a great and true friend; I wish I had been a better one to him. But he was not the kind of guy to bear a grudge, especially against anyone who appreciates Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots.