one of the cool guys

the book

I was afraid to write about my friend Nick's death because I'm worried that it might be a little exploitative. I didn't want to sound as if I were trying to draw attention to myself. But then I realized--again--that I deal with things by writing. It's what I do.
     Nick committed suicide on October 3, 2001. He was a quadriplegic who was totally disabled by chronic, agonizing pain. Before I met him two and a half years ago, I thought that all quadriplegics were numb from the neck down. Well, most are, but Nick was one of the rare people whose injuries cause them to go in the other direction and become hypersensitive. He told me that twenty-four hours a day, every day, his entire body except for his head felt like your thumb feels after you smash it with a hammer. Sitting, lying in bed, having a shower, or simply being touched were torture. None of the medication or treatments available could reduce his pain, so when he took his life, I knew that the only reason he'd done it was that he'd just had enough. He'd put up with it for nineteen years, ever since his neck had been broken in a car accident.
     I mention Nick's manner of passing because we were always very honest with each other, and he wouldn't have wanted me to gloss things over. I've never had a close friend commit suicide before. Even though it wasn't a surprise, it was a huge shock. It was so sudden--he was here, and then he was gone. The overwhelming sense I have is of things left unsaid. There's a lot I wish I could have told him.
     On the surface, we were unlikely friends. He was from a working-class background; he was an athlete; he liked to go to strip clubs; and he'd never been out of the United States except for short surfing trips to Mexico. In his pre-accident photos, he's the idealized surfer dude--tan and muscular with curly shoulder-length blond hair. He looked a bit like Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant in his prime. If we'd gone to the same high school, Nick and I would never have spoken because he was one of the cool guys. But as men pushing forty, we got along. Two or three times a week, I would go out to where he sat by the side of the road sunning himself, and we would talk for at least two hours. Sometimes it stretched into three or four hours. He explained things that I didn't know about, things such as surfing, water skiing, speedboats, car engines, car paint jobs, and what goes on in machine shops. In return, I explained what it was like to live in foreign countries and be a struggling writer.
     We talked about death too. He wanted to die more than anything in the world. It was his all-consuming passion. He teased me about my desire to live to a hundred and die sitting on the sofa next to my hundred-year-old wife.
     "You wanna be married to the same woman for sixty years?" he would groan. "Man, I just can't understand that at all. How could you have sex with the same woman over and over for sixty years? I'd go nuts."
     He'd had lots of girlfriends before the accident. He'd spent his youth on the prowl, another way we were completely different. And as for dying of old age, the idea was incomprehensible.
     "So you just want to go 'Blehhhhhhhh' and tip over, huh? Just kind of peter out? No way! That's not for me. I always wanted to live to about fifty-five and then maybe die surfing. I never wanted to get feeble. Pretty hilarious, huh!"
     Nick talked about suicide constantly, and he apologized constantly for bringing up what he said must have been a very depressing subject. It wasn't depressing, though. I can listen to anything as long as its real. If he had bantered endlessly or kidded around or yukked it up, if he had hidden within a shtick-laden persona, that would have been depressing. I didn't mind that he was terribly unhappy. As I get older, I get more misanthropic, but I also crave more genuine connection with people. It sounds like a recipe for disaster, like I'm going to end up a crazy old man forever chasing the very thing he despises, but it's just that I'm tired of junk. When I want junk, I watch TV; when I'm dealing with people, I don't want to get the feeling that I'm watching TV.
     I also liked talking to Nick because he was funny. He had a very dark sense of humor, one of the few things we had in common. His position was that he had the worst luck of anybody he knew.
     "You know," he said, "you're so afraid of dying, and all I want to do is die, but with my luck if a car went out of control and jumped the curb, it'd hit you and not even touch me. You'd be lying there, out like a light, no pain at all. You wouldn't even know what hit you, and I'd be stuck here for another nineteen years."
     And we laughed. I once asked him if he'd considered driving his chair down the steep flight of concrete stairs over in front of the high school.
     "Naw. With my luck, I'd just get all busted up. I'd break my arms and legs, and my chair would be ruined. Or I'd break my neck again."
     And we laughed.
     He could be whimsical when he was experiencing less pain than usual. A sun worshiper, he generally wore only shorts, socks, and sneakers; before he went home one evening, he asked me to roll his socks down a couple of inches so he would have bands of white skin showing below his brown shins.
     "I just wanna see if anybody notices," he said.
     Nick was one of two people I've known in my life who could make fun of me in a humane, absolutely nonhostile way. He liked to get on my case for my various fears, which he worried were holding me back and keeping me from living life to the fullest. He himself was fearless. We often talked about the dangerous stunts he'd pulled--driving his jeep off-road at eighty in the desert at night, water skiing barefoot, rock climbing without safety gear--as well as the dangerous opportunities he'd missed.
     "I wish I'd been able to try sky diving," he said. "You'd never even think about doing that, would you?"
     "Not in a million years."
     "Damn, Tom! Don't you ever take any risks?"
     "I try not to."
     "Yeah, I noticed. Shit. Die on the sofa at a hundred."
     "If I'm lucky."
     "Oh, you'll be lucky, all right. You'll make sure you make it to that sofa. If I know you, you'll hole up in your house the rest of your life just so you can end up on that sofa next to a hundred-year-old lady, right?"
     A week after I gave Nick a copy of my book, he finally admitting to being afraid of one thing: Gene Simmons. He couldn't believe that I'd actually interviewed the Gene Simmons.
     "God, I would've been scared to death! I used to listen to Kiss when I was a kid, and I've been trying to picture you in a little room with him, the same guy who wore that devil makeup and had the long tongue. It makes me feel all cold! I guess you've got some backbone in you after all."
     The last time I saw Nick was three days before he died. He was very happy, very serene, which was nice because he'd been utterly miserable for weeks. We talked for our two hours, and as I was leaving, he asked me to look at the sunset. It was gorgeous--pink and purple and orange and yellow, like a big bowl of fruit and sherbet stirred together.
     "Look how beautiful that is," he said. "People don't even see it. People take everything for granted. It's pathetic. I sit out here every day, and every day I still notice how beautiful the sunset is."
     I don't think I took Nick for granted, but he was a little too macho to let me tell him how much he meant to me. I have no idea how I would have managed to do it without embarrassing both of us. At his memorial service, his nurse said that he talked about me a lot, and his mother said that he really appreciated my friendship. I'm glad. I haven't dreamed about him yet, though I'm hoping I will soon. I'm hoping he'll figure out a way to let me know that he's okay.
     Oh, and Nick? I love you.
     So there.

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