June 17, 2007

My friend L. came over yesterday afternoon. He lives about 25 minutes away but it’s the first time we’ve seen one another in almost a year. He’s 10 years older than me, and I’ve known him over 20 years now, which is kind of amazing. We were both new hires for the county in a different life. And quite frankly, when I first met him I didn’t like him much.

L. could be an ass, and sometimes even be an arrogant, belligerent fuck. But after working with him a few months and deciding that, as different as we were in some aspects, we were very much the same in others — and yes, he was a belligerent, arrogant fuck — we ended up friends in a very tight friendship. Surprise! In that job, we got to know one another well enough to know how the other would react in almost any given situation, and where we worked, there were numerous critical possibilities. It got so that we mostly worked with one another, rather than with the rotating schedule of other employees.

Even though we’ve not worked together for fifteen years, we’ve kept providing backup to one another through divorces, legal hassles, employment and unemployment, a one and a half year drunk, IRS threats, and different female relationships. I’ve managed to bring him into the 20th century with computer skills and online venues, and he’s taught me how to be an arrogant, belligerent fuck. (Actually, I like to think I’m not an arrogant, belligerent fuck, though kayleigh does sometimes call me arrogant, to which I reply, “but with good reason,” and to which she sighs with reluctant agreement).

L. was a military brat growing up, moving from base to base and school to school, almost his entire childhood. “A new fight, every time,” he told me once, which probably contributed to his aggressive personality. When his father was given command of a local missile base when L. was in high school, things settled down until L. joined the army early with his father’s reluctant blessing. He is a two tour Vietnam vet, long range recon patrol. The army wanted him for a third tour but he was tempting fate at that point, with a stay at Walter Reed under his belt, and said no thanks. He downplays his Purple Heart, Metal of Valor, and several bronze and silver stars. In fact, he never mentioned any of these until someone at the county, curious, ran a background check on him and found out.

Another guy we used to work with was a medic in Vietnam, and Murphy held onto it, rehashing military offenses and horror stories and reading all about Vietnam, watching movies and documentaries to the point of obsession.

But L. didn’t like to hold onto it much, and usually only spoke of Vietnam if we’d been drinking after a shift at work. He’s told me a lot of stories, and it’s sometimes hard to think about how he lived them. I didn’t see L. cry when his mother passed away — and I was the first person he called, and was at his house within minutes. But I did see him tear up when talking about a black guy getting his head blown off because he didn’t listen to L., his sergeant, who kept telling him to keep his “fucking head down!”

L. liked to drink. After work he’d stop at a local carryout for a 40 oz. bottle of cheap beer. After I left where we’d both worked for several years, we spoke occasionally but didn’t see one another for almost two years. Then his ex-wife called me, worried about him, and asked me to check on him. I didn’t even know she was an ex-wife.

Turns out that he had lost not only his wife, but also his job, and soon, his sick mother, and was into the first few months of what turned into a one and a half year drunk, only broken by short weeks of sobriety when he got a job that he usually left.

After about a year, L. met an early widow and they struck up a relationship. He gave up beer shortly after that, and though we still got together for cigars and gin & tonics a few times a year, beer now made him sick, and he stopped drinking to excess, a good thing. His girlfriend was an odd bird though, devoted to her brothers and sisters, something L. didn’t quite grasp with his solitary lifestyle. Eventually she and her sister bought a condo and she moved out thinking he would follow, but he didn’t. He lives alone now, though he does have a long distance relationship or two – compliments of the online venue I introduced him to a few years ago. I’m pretty sure this may have saved his life.

L. smoked like a chimney for years until one day he simply quit. But he would still smoke cigars when we got together, and after a time he gave into this vice and began smoking several cigars a day. A couple of years ago he stopped smoking them too, diagnosed with emphysema after a year of struggling to catch his breath. No more alcohol, no more cigars. Now, a lifetime of cigarettes, cigars, factory work and several showers of Agent Orange causes him to huff and puff and get tired easily, especially in summer heat. I’ve had telephone conversations with him where he was slurring words and I thought he might be hitting the sauce again, something he denied. kayleigh told me it was probably due to oxygen deprivation. He’s struggling so hard to breathe, he doesn’t have enough oxygen for anything else.

L’s mother, also a life-long smoker, toted an oxygen tank around for the last three years or so of her life. She and L. lived in the same house, she on the ground floor, and he on the second. He watched her die in that house, struggling for breath in her own deathbed. He swore that he would not die like that. Although I’d listened to him say this for years before he got sick, the other day he told me that he was never going to drag an oxygen tank around like his mother did. “I’ll put a bullet in my brain before then,” he said, quite matter of fact.

Like I said, I’ve know this aspect of him for years. Even before he got sick, he always said he’d go out this way, or like his father, by sudden heart attack. I believe him. But it’s still somewhat disturbing to hear your best friend say he’s going to kill himself some day. I’ve already had one friend do that. At the same time though, it’s oddly comforting to know L. has accepted death and has all it planned out. “I don’t have any family left,“ he said, never having had children. “Other than you, no one will really give a shit. Who do I have to worry about? I’ve been almost dead before, face down in the mud shitting myself while bullets flew overhead.“ As always, he’s belligerently realistic, even when it comes to taking his own life.

It would absolutely suck to see someone who was so vital and energetic be hooked to oxygen, slowly dying. His father, a lifer in the army whom I never got a chance to meet, died in his early 50s, and quickly. Retired from the military, he apparently felt it coming while sitting in his favorite chair one evening after dinner. He looked at L., his only son, and said, “Take care of your mother, boy,” and quietly died.

At the same time I expect L. to eventually take his own life, I also know that he’s surprised me so many times in the past that a change in direction would not be surprising at all. He may very well end up fighting for his last breath, belligerent and pissed off as always.

Who knows. Either way it pans out, I won’t be surprised. It will still suck, but I won’t be surprised.


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