Life lessons from a friend who knew how to liveby dan pine
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I can’t believe I’ve arrived at that stage in life when I am burying my friends. But here it is. Earlier this year I said goodbye to Gary, one of my oldest and dearest. I was with him the night he died, at his home in Seattle, lying on the bed next to him, holding hands and chatting softly.
He was amazingly lucid, lighthearted and funny those last hours. For fleeting moments, it was like any other hang with him. Sadly, the cancer that had stalked him since childhood finally won. But Gary had always made an art of survival.
It was just one of many medals on his chest: father and husband, esteemed psychoanalyst, snappy dresser, gifted photographer and last remaining fan of Captain Beefheart.
True confession: All those labels and all of his professional accomplishments didn’t mean much to me. Not that they weren’t significant. They were. But Gary could have been an aspiring gas station attendant and it wouldn’t have made a difference. He was my brother. That’s what mattered.
I met him at a house party in Beverly Hills when we were 14, and I’ll admit he didn’t make a good impression at first. He was just so wild, and at the time I didn’t do wild. But gradually I came to see his virtues, and we became fast friends.
Gary and I used to go out taking pictures. He was a great photographer even as a teen. One time in a poor neighborhood in South Central L.A. we spied three adorable girls peeping through the window of their ramshackle home. We hopped their fence because Gary wanted to get closer shots. Suddenly the dad burst out of the house, pointed a gun and ordered us to open our cameras to expose the film. Of course we complied instantly and fled.
What the pistol-packin’ papa didn’t know was Gary had already shot an entire roll and reloaded his camera, hiding in his pocket 36 pictures of the girls.
I remember when we were 16, driving to Big Sur, and Gary surmising that the name of the town of Oxnard signified some sort of bovine testicle.
Then there was Gary’s dancing. While the rest of us were all long-hair-Grateful-Dead-Woodstock, Gary was all James-Brown-Average-White-Band-sex-machine.
Until he met his wife, Gary had a prodigious dating life. With his trim beard, disco-era Jewfro and shirt unbuttoned down to here, he resembled an Israeli car stereo salesman. He was a total chick magnet. Then he dropped that for his favorite roles, husband and father.
When I scan the timeline of my life, Gary photo bombs the whole thing. He was best man at my first wedding, held up the chuppah at my second and held me up at the funerals of my parents.
He was the first person to lay eyes on my son, Aaron, because he was the official childbirth photographer. Then there were his family seders and Rosh Hashanah parties, which were some of my happiest days. Gary was part of every milestone of my life, the paragon of faithful friends.
He had amazingly blunt boundaries, too. We could be on the phone, and I’d be in the middle of some epic complaint about this or that, and he would eventually say, “OK. Gotta go.” I never took it personally.
Those boundaries were forged by the fires of cancer. He lived a gloriously full life because, better than anyone I knew, Gary understood how dangerous it is to waste time. He never squandered a second, and lived a life of consequence because of that.
My life has been weird since his death, oddly dry and tasteless, not nearly as fun or funny. I keep expecting his call. So far he’s shown up in a few dreams — they felt like visitations — and he usually had a wink or a pep talk for me.
I’d been wondering how to navigate life without him. So for guidance I turned to the words of Gary himself. Here’s what he wrote in the intro to “Five Blocks to Green Lake,” his book of photographs: “Having no set agenda on my walks I remain open to the chance meeting, the fresh encounter.”
I will try to remain open, too. Shalom, chaver, and flights of angels sing thee to thy sleep.
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