A week ago last Sunday, my friend Neal passed away. He was less than 60 years old.
I say my friend because he was someone I knew reasonably well, who I liked and admired and respected. He was part of my church group. We never really hung out or anything, but I had once visited him and his wife at their home, and walked their dog for them.
When I moved out of the neighborhood almost two years ago, I didn't really say goodbyes to anyone, as I knew I'd be popping into church from time to time. We'd see each other eventually.
Somehow, almost two years have passed, and I have not seen or talked to pretty much anyone from that group, except for those rare occasions when I make it into the city for a service – usually because I’ve been asked to sing. We’d catch up over coffee hour, exchange hugs and kisses, and never hear from each other again until several months later. Rinse, repeat. It doesn’t seem like much, but it mattered. We all take our little community for granted.
I never really imagined never seeing these people again. And now Neal is gone.
I didn't go to the funeral. It was on a Wednesday, and I had to work, of course. I had two days notice, which really isn’t enough to ask for a day off, especially when it’s not a family member’s funeral. My Piano Man friend, however, works evenings, so he was asked to play the music for the funeral. He called me to discuss song ideas. Neal’s wife had requested all Beatle’s songs. “In My Life” was a given. I suggested “The Long and Winding Road.”
Neal was a songwriter himself, and had composed hundreds of poems and songs. That was one thing we’d had in common, a love of music. I remembered the time I’d visited them, sipping tea in the living room, and Neal had played me a tape-recording of a beautiful love song he’d written for his wife. He and I seemed to be kindred spirits in that way. I remembered talking to him once about the torch songs I’d written over the years for various lost loves in my life. Neal had taking his writing that one step further, and gotten someone to play and record his songs for him. Something I’ve never made the effort to do.
Neal was living with encephalitis for a considerable number of years. I never knew this until after he’d passed. I never asked. I always felt that the nature of his illness was his business, and that it would have been intrusive for me to ask. I’d imagined he might have had MS, due to his gait, or possibly had suffered a stroke, as his speech was labored, and there was significant tremor in his hands. Encephalitis never would have occurred to me. Encephalitis attacks the central nervous system directly, and usually causes very sudden death. Somehow, Neal and his wife must have been able to manage it, medically or otherwise. I suppose I should have been foreseen that Neal might pass away at a relatively young age, but he always seemed so vibrant… so full of life.
His relationship with his wife was beautiful. Their love was completely tangible. I remember them sitting side-by-side in church, almost snuggling in the pew. They had an ancient Springer Spaniel named Needles, who passed away a few years ago, after which they adopted a Cocker Spaniel puppy. I can only imagine the laughter in that house, with such an energetic pup. They were such a family, Mr. and Mrs. Neal and their dogs, and such a special part of our church family.
When Piano Man called me with the news of Neal’s death, I didn’t process it right away. I was shocked, but so distracted with the extraordinarily hectic day I was having that the news didn’t really sink in. It took me days to process it. And when I finally began to understand what happened, I cried.
I just wish it hadn’t been in the middle of a Shiatsu class.
(To be continued…)