Thursday, June 28, 2012

Life by the Drop

It was about 11:20 am last Tuesday when I got a call on my cellphone while at my desk.  It was an 'unknown' number, a long one, but it didn't bring anyone to mind.

I answered with my standard greeting: "Hello, this is Phillip."

There was a long pause on the other end.  "Phillip!"

I recognized the voice immediately.  It was M_______.

"M________!" I said cheerfully.

"This is M_______," he said, as if he hadn't heard me.

" M_______!" I repeated, not surprised that he hadn't heard me but curious to know why he was calling, "How are you?"

"Not well," he said with a heavy sigh.

"Really, I am sorry to hear that!" I was, but still, not surprised.  "What's the problem?"

"I'm not well.  It's my heart...I need to come to Austin."


"But I'm broke.  I need some money for the bus."

"How much?"  I cringed as I waited for the answer.  I hate to admit it, but we are cash poor these days,.  Money is tight.  The last time I heard this request from a friend, it cost me $1200.  That money I had a year ago, but we sure don't have it now.

"$300 would be great." M_______ said, with no hesitation to think about the number.  I raised an eyebrow, even though he couldn't see it. He was ostensibly asking for money for a bus trip, but it seemed to me that this was probably more than the cost of a bus ticket. However, I didn't question the number or his motive.

"Ok," I said, also thinking about how I was going to explain this to Valery.  "I can do that."

"Oh Phillip, you are a life saver!" M_______ said, obviously buoyed by my response.  "Thank you!"

We talked about the details a bit, about when, how and where to wire him the money.  He was most insistent that this was to be a loan, and assured me several times that he would pay me back.

"The operative word here," he said with some satisfaction, "is loan.  And, I will pay you back really quick!"

In spite of his assurances, I had no expectation that this was to be anything other than an outright gift.  This is because I know better than to attach myself to the outcome of a repayment especially from a friend.  It never works out.  Knowing, then, that such an attachment will only lead to disappointment and pain, when I said yes, I had already done the mental math.  I knew we could technically 'afford' to give him the $300.  I didn't want to, but I just couldn't say no.

I had also done the 'marital' math.  That is, calculating the cost of asking Valery to contribute to the welfare of someone who was not a member of our family.  Of course, I knew that it wasn't an unreasonable cost.  Valery would not object.  She would, I know, understand it's the right thing to do.  Besides, I knew she would support me no matter what her reservations might have been.

On the upside, M_______ was a particularly old friend of mine who has been to our house on more than one occasion.  But on the downside, he was also a difficult guest, having come over to the house already drunk on several of those occasions.

Adding to this was that the fact that we were not particularly close.  M_______ lived in Mexico for the past twenty years.  Although we were often invited to come visit him, we never did.  Our only contact with him came when he was 'home' to visit his Dad or to get his passport renewed.

As he thanked me, then, I wondered about M_______'s contact with Dad.  M_______ Sr. is now in his nineties.  Specifically I was curious to know if the reason he'd asked me for money was because he'd already been rebuffed by his father.  It sure sounded that way to me.

"So, are you going to stay with  M__?" I asked.  M_______ Sr. is known by most people simply as ' M__'.

"Ah, no," He said, drawing out the short answer after an impossibly long pause.  This was not a good sign.

"Well, then, where are you planning on staying?"

I was now wondering if the purpose of the call was not only to raise some money but to secure a place to stay as well.  My mind raced ahead.  Could he stay with us?

The answer was yes, technically, he could stay with us.  The spare bedroom had only just been vacated the week before.  Our previous 'tenant' had been stayed about a month, but only needed the room until he could move to San Antonio.  And he paid rent.

But as far as I could tell, M_______ was not able to pay rent.  Nor did it seem likely that, if allowed to move in, he would actually move out anytime soon.  Without an income and in poor health, he could end up staying indefinitely, which was simply not something I could contemplate.  That was up until I heard his response.

"I dunno.  I guess I was going to stay in my storage unit."

I sighed loudly, shaking my head as I spoke.  "M________, you can't do that!"

"Why not?"

"Well, for one thing, it's against the law.  And the storage place won't allow it, because it's against the law."

"They won't know."

"But I will," I said. I was exasperated but already resigned to caring for my clueless friend.  "I can't let you sleep on the concrete floor of your storage unit.  Especially if you aren't well.  You'll stay with us."

"Oh Phillip, that's nice but you don't have to do that."

I bit my lip, thinking about how this was exactly what I would now have to do, because his lack of planning had given me no choice.  It's an ironic feeling, being upset with someone who needs help so desperately.  I want to help.  I have to help because he has no choice.  But I also don't want to help because I have no choice.  Selfishly I thought more of my own inconvenience than I did about my friend's desperate need.  Instead of wondering about his welfare, I wondered why he was doing this to me.

All these thoughts accompanied me that afternoon as I went to the Western Union station at the local HEB.  I withdrew $300 from our account (after Valery had generously agreed to transfer the money from our savings) and wired it to Guanajuato.  Shortly afterward I called M_______ to give him the 'magic' number he needed to retrieve his money.  I used the call as a excuse to pry.

"So, why aren't you going to stay with your Dad?"

Now, I knew that his father was elderly and in very poor health.  Having cared for Lynda and seen Valery care for Billie, it seemed inconceivable that M_______ had no interest in caring for his father.  But I knew better.  They were never close, and I had no real reason to think that M_______ would be able to care for his Dad, even if he had the will, which he definitely did not.

For example, he was in Austin late last year for a few weeks.  During that time I counseled him to return to Austin and stay here to help with his father's care.  He said yes, he would think about it, but before I knew it he returned to Mexico without warning.  I found out he was gone by calling his Dad,  M__ Sr.

At the time, I asked   M__ Sr. if he needed any help.  He told me that even though he was in poor health, he didn't need my help because he had a live-in helper.  While it was nice to know he had a caretaker, it sure made me sad to think that M_______ Jr. was essentially abandoning his father in his most urgent time of need.  And here he was, doing it again.

"Well," he said slowly, "His caretaker doesn't like me."

No wonder, I thought, without saying it.  After all, not only is M_______ an alcoholic, but he's a smoker as well.  He's unbelievably messy, unwilling to clean up after himself and particularly selfish about his space.  The thought of him staying with us repelled me, just as it had  M__'s caretaker.  Even if Valery said yes, I knew that we just couldn't allow him to move in.  And yet, I'd already offered the invitation.

"Alright," I said, resolved now to take him in, against my better judgement.  "I understand.  But you cannot stay in your storage unit.  Listen, just give me a call when you are getting close, and I'll come pick you up."

"You don't have to do that."

"I realize that.  But I will.  Now, when do you leave?"

"Well, if I get the money tonight, I can leave tomorrow."

"And how long does the bus trip take?"

"I dunno, about a day and a half."

"So you'll be here on Thursday afternoon?  What time does the bus from Laredo arrive?"  I was thinking there would be just one bus coming in every day.

"Yeah," he said, "Yeah I will be there on Thursday."

"Ok, then.  Call me when you get to the US.  Like from Laredo or something, just to let me know when you'll be here."

"Phillip you are a lifesaver," he said it again.  "Thank you."

"Of course," I said.  "Just call me when you are getting close.  We'll talk more when you get here, ok?"

"OK.  Thanks again."

As soon as I hung up, I began to question my decisions.  First of all, the money.  Now, while we have some money in savings, we certainly don't have it there to help out others.  That just sounds selfish, especially because we are planning a trip to Paris in the fall.  Surely, while it seems mean to even question the use of our savings to help a friend, it's also true that we are actually saving for for our goal, sacrificing other, current needs in order to plan for the future.

In many ways, this is the exact opposite of what M_______ had done.  And now, here he was, asking me to give up my savings because he had failed to plan for the future.  It's the Ant and the Grasshopper parable all over.

Then, there was the distinct and uncomfortable possibility that when he was comfortably ensconced in our spare bedroom, he would have no incentive to leave.  In fact, his health might even prevent it.  In the worst case scenario, he might even die in our house.  Nonetheless, I was committed to caring for him.  I resolved to make it work, even if that meant setting a limit on how long he could stay with us.

That was on Tuesday afternoon, June 12.  The next day, after a day of wondering if he'd actually gotten the money, I did some checking and discovered that he had picked it up. I did some quick calculations and figured he'd be calling me the next day, once he was in Laredo, or perhaps even from San Antonio.

The next day was Wednesday and I didn't hear from him.  No worries, I thought, he must have gotten on the bus but hadn't gotten here yet.  It was a long bus trip, after all.

On Thursday, Valery and I made plans for me to take the truck so I could pick him up, but we still hadn't heard anything.  I told a few friends that I was a little concerned, but this was such typical 'M________' behavior that it wasn't unexpected.  Many many times he had simply showed up on arrival, and many many times he had simply failed to show up when and where expected.  It was odd, because I really thought I'd made it clear that he was to call me the minute he got here, if not before.

On Friday I was starting to get concerned.  Not so much for his well being, but I was now thinking that he had not gotten on a bus at all, but had used the money to pay bills or worse, go on a drinking binge.

I decided to call his landlady in Guanajuato to see if he was still there.

I reached her, but don't speak Spanish and she didn't speak English, so our conversation was not only brief, it was also fairly disconnected.  She was able to let me know he wasn't there, but I didn't know if that meant he'd left for the US or was just out at a bar.  At one point, I asked in a leading tone, "Estados Unidos?" When she replied, "Si!" I assumed he was still on his way.

On Saturday, I was getting annoyed.  Knowing that he'd boarded the bus, I was now upset that he hadn't called yet.  It seemed like such a simple thing, going to a phone booth during a rest stop and calling me, yet he hadn't done it.  But why?

I went through a dozen scenarios with each passing hour.  Probably, I thought at first, it's because he just didn't want to bother me. Perhaps, I thought next, he'd gone over to his Dad's house after all.  Then the dark side set in.  Perhaps, I grumbled, he'd come to town and was actually staying in his storage unit.   Now I had convinced myself that he deliberately hadn't bothered to contact me.  Now I was annoyed.  By the end of the day on Saturday I was angry, certain he was here but was just being typically inconsiderate.

Sunday found me in a different frame of mind.  This was the 17th, now five days after he first called me and I hadn't heard a thing.  It was also Father's Day.  It occurred to me that he might have gone to visit  M__, so even if he wasn't staying with him, he might know where he was.  I decided to give M_______ Sr. a call.

One of  M__'s caretaker answered the phone.  She wanted to know who I was, naturally.  I explained that I was on old friend of M_______ Jr. and that I was calling to check on   M__ Sr. and wish a happy Father's Day.  I heard her tell him the former but not the latter.  For this I was most grateful just a moment later.

"Phillip!," he said in a weak but fairly bright voice when he came on the line., "How are you?"

"I'm fine  M__," I said.  "I'm calling to check on M_______.  Have you heard from him?"

"Oh, it's a horrible day,"   M__ Sr. said. "A horrible day."

I knew what he was talking about in an instant, but I still had to ask.

"What's happened?"

"He died.  M_______ has died."

I was in shock.  All I could say, over and over again were the very words that had so failed to soothe or help me when Pierre died: "I am so sorry".  The truth of it was just that.  I was terribly sorry.  For  M__, for me and of course, for M_______.  "I am so sorry." I said.

My thoughts tumbled about aimlessly in my brain.  For a few minutes, coherence was unreachable.  Nothing seemed to make sense.  "I am so sorry." I said again, wishing I could stop saying it, wishing I could think of something, anything else to say.  But all that emerged was "I am so sorry."

I forced myself to stop saying this and tried to concentrate to what to say next.  Nothing came.  After a moment or two I broke the silence to ask where it had happened.

"In Mexico.  He died in Mexico."

I don't know why I needed to know this.  It didn't really matter.  Morbid curiosity, I guess, was at the root of that question, and the answer didn't help one bit.  I suddenly had a vision of him collapsing in the bus station, being rushed to a tiny hospital and dying on the way there.  Of course I have no idea if that's what happened.  I was silent.  I simply couldn't think of anything else to say or ask of  M__.

With another "I'm sorry," I told him I would call back.  Before I knew it, I had hung up the phone and was alone with my thoughts.

And such awful thoughts came!  Thoughts of guilt, for even questioning M_______ in his moment of need.  I had thoughts of remorse, for not following up sooner, and thoughts of regret, for not taking care of my friend long before it came to this.

I had angry thoughts too.  Why should M_______ cause such pain for his father?  I know this pain all too well.  I know how difficult it to receive this news.  Even though his son was 55 and not 20, the effect is the same.

 M__'s word was apt: "Horrible."  It's certainly how I felt, especially receiving the news from him on, of all days, Father's Day.

I admit I am still having trouble with M_______'s death.  It isn't something I can talk about.  Perhaps it's especially because I can't talk about it that it's giving me such trouble.  I feel the need to write about him, but so far this little account is all I've been able to muster.  I imagine a much fuller picture of my friend, including all the stories of our time together.

 M_______ was a remarkable person, but he had a rather unremarkable life.  In some sense, this is why I am having trouble reconciling my feelings.  On one hand, I feel sad that he died so young, so lonely and having done so little with the enormous talent I know he was given.

On the other hand, this is exactly why we were no longer close, because he simply wasn't keeping up.  I don't mean that in a social sense, or even in terms of a career.  I had no unrealistic expectations for my friend.  I knew from my first days as M_______'s friend that he was not like other people.  I knew that wasn't going to be the kind of person who would have a lot of friends or follow a straight-arrow career.  But to be honest, that's what I liked about my friend.

In spite of my love for him as a friend, he also managed to frustrate me over the years.  It was difficult, watching him waste his talent with inactivity and booze.  He was a trust fund baby, which meant that he really never had to work, and never did.  Although his income was modest, it was steady, and coupled with his natural inclination to sit around, smoke cigarettes, drink coffee and booze, he managed to live on it without working for most of his life.

He moved to Mexico a few years ago because he could live more cheaply there, although his stated reason was to learn Spanish, the only Spanish he used was in the Guanajuato bars, where he became known as 'Max'.

I knew M_______ to be a very eccentric and brilliant individual.  He alone of anyone I'd ever met was capable of holding in his head enormously complicated and interesting thoughts.  But he was very slow.  Slow to speak.  Slow to walk.  Slow to act.  It was if he lived in another dimension of time, somewhere between rocks and trees.  I lived (and still do) at the pace of a hummingbird, so we were almost polar opposites and personalities go.  But somehow, our friendship worked.

Part of it had to do with my deep respect for M_______ as a thinker.  The fact that he thought so deeply about things amazed me, for this was something I was simply not capable of. And, while he spoke so slowly and took so long to come to a conclusion when he was making a point drove most people to shake their heads and give up before he was finished, but it only added to my impression of him as a deep-thinking genius.

Certainly, he was a talented artist.  He was an amazing draftsman.  He was certain and fluid with his pencil, lifting human form out of a blank page with and effortlessness that I have only seen one other person (my brother Steve) do.  I have three of his paintings hanging in our home.  One is above our bed and I look at it every day.

However, I don't think of him every day.  At least, I didn't, till his death.  Although it's been a while since we've been close, our friendship was of the kind and duration that doesn't simply fade from view.  I was, however, hearing from him in late-night drunken phone calls from Mexico, vaguely aware that he was living on the edge.  Oftentimes I would check out news reports of strange deaths here in Austin, (men crossing the highway, for example) thinking it might just be him, having returned without telling me and then getting himself killed.  It would, I thought, be such a M_______ way to go.

In the end, though, he did die in a M_______ way: alone, of a heart-attack in a bus station in a foreign country.  Sadly, he died before his father.  Of this feeling I know something, but the feelings of grief I have for my friend are more complex than I imagined.

This account you've just finished, Dear Reader, is, of necessity, an incomplete memoir.  I will, in the coming days and weeks, include in this journal as many of the stories about our friendship as I can recall and have the time to write.  Just this, this lengthy and far too self-centered account of his death is grossly insufficient.  But it necessary, for both of us.

For you, you now know something of how he died.  For me, I have unburdened myself at your expense.  In turn, though, I will add to this drab account some of his life and color, for the stories of our friendship is filled with delight, humor and above all, genuine love.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Blowing Me Away

Some things are so mind blowingly awesome that they do not need any sort of fanciful or mythical explanation to make them so amazingly wonderful to comprehend.  This week, two things have reached that level for me.

1.  The Human Microbiome Project has just finished the first-ever survey of the microbes that live on and in us.  In case you haven't heard, we are not all human.  In fact, were not even mostly human, from a genetic material standpoint. I know, it's a bit of a stretch because we are talking about a rather thinly defined 'biomass', essentially.  From what we know about this stuff it might as well come from another galaxy.  Actually, it might, but that's another speculation for another essay.  

From what the researchers can tell from the preliminary data--that is, the weight and mass and, to some extent, the make-up--about the creatures that live with us, they comprise somewhere between 2 and six pounds of our body weight.  

That either sounds gross or it sounds great.  I think it sounds great.  Finally, this is proof that we are actually the Royal We, with far more than a mouse in our collective pockets.  

Seriously, it shows how simultaneously diverse and dependent we humans are as creatures:  we are not only what we eat, but we are what's eating us.  

This blows my mind because shows how dependent we are on creatures so much smaller than us we'd never even know they were there.  Until, that is, something goes wrong, and some of those creatures die off or multiply so rapidly that they overwhelm other sets of creatures living alongside them and not coincidentally making our lives possible.  Then we get sick.  

It seems that the truth about sickness is this:  when We are ill, that means that whole host of creatures is undergoing serious change.  Huge numbers of microbes are either dying off or multiplying rapidly, causing mayhem in the Body that depends on their mutual understanding.  

In my mind's eye, when these creatures have a war, I imagine the great armies of the Bahagavad Gita, arrayed on the field of battle.  I sympathize with Krishna, who counsels Arjuna and looks on the scene, powerless to help or hinder, but desperately interested in the outcome of the battle, for it is actually his existence that is on the line.

There are many other implications of the human microbiome that require some thought and commentary, but this is just my first pass at it.

2.  Voyager 1 is about to enter interstellar space.  In case you've forgotten about it, Voyager 1 was launched in September 1977.  It is still out there, sailing on in deep space, and sending back information via radio signals.  It is the most distant man-made object from Earth, currently in the heliopause but about to leave even that most distant reach of old Sol.  

In 1990 it sent back an image (known as the 'Blue Dot') from outside the solar system, in which the Earth was reduced to a single pixel.  Mind-blowing as this may seem, it's not what is taking the top of my head off today.

For truly a mind blowing moment, think about this information, taken from a recent NASA press release:

"Data from Voyager 1 is currently taking 16-hours and 38 minutes to travel from the spacecraft's antennae, through 11.1 billion miles (17.8 billion kilometers) of space and to NASA's Deep Space Network on Earth."

Dear Reader, did you really stop and think about that?  I think perhaps not, because otherwise your mind would be blown, clean away.  Protest not.  Think about it some more.

Seriously, this blows my mind because it's not just a big number, or a long distance.  It's the symbolism that cannot be overstated.  Even though we will eventually lose touch with this thing altogether and most humans will not even know of its existence, that tiny little metal and glass object, made by the human hand and flung out into space for no other reason than doing so has an amazingly important meaning for us humans.

After all, it hasn't been that long ago that we wandered out and up from Africa, sleeping, trading and eventually replacing the Neanderthals that had held the territory for eons.  And just like that, in the twinkling of a star, Voyager will loose the bounds of the sun and drift free, waiting to be captured by the invisible tendrils of another star.  

Who knows on which distant beach it will arrive on?  I will be there with it.