Through one of those strange and awful coincidences that life presents, my wife and I spent a week or so simultaneously watching the decline and death of each of our mentors. Mine hired me; hers hired her.
They died within 72 hours of each other last week. Hers fell at the doctor's office and hit his head and developed a brain bleed, was on life support for over a week until his children were finally convinced that he would not come out of it. Mine fell taking out the trash at night, and how that precipitated his end I don't know exactly, but within 36 hours, he was gone.
While she was monitoring hers, and giving guidance to his children, I actually saw mine one last time. We met on Monday night, our usual group, for steak and male conversation, him playing host as always, with his baskets of stellar french fries and perfectly-cooked meat, accompanied by the vegetable of choice, always brussel sprouts. With ice cream and coffee for dessert.
And even though, with his emphysema, he had to choose each moment between breathing and talking, we had a wonderful evening, the usual sharing of stories and the camaraderie that develops when a group of men meets at irregular intervals, all united by the common bond of attending or working at the same private school.
As you might expect with a mentor, both were tortured relationships over 20 and 30 years, respectively, a mix of good and bad, uplifting and disappointment, support and second-guessing. And, as you might expect, that makes the aftermath more difficult than if the relationships had been smooth.
For my wife, her final meetings with her mentor were at his bedside where he was unresponsive, her presence more for his children than for him, though she would lie awake at night and grieve him privately, reviewing, as her particular mind tends to do, all of their various interactions, the slights and the joys.
And the differences emerged. Ultimately, she believes her mentor did not choose life. He did not manage his diabetes, he did not manage his weight, he was found in his house a year or so ago in a coma from that lethal combination. He cut himself off, pretty much, from those who wanted to bring him out. His fall was the result of him losing the ability to control his walking.
Mine, she believes, and I agree, chose life. Though anyone who knew him could argue that he brought the emphysema on with his inability to give up smoking, the fact remains that to his last week, to his last day, he lived a life of engagement, hosting friends and serving others. His contributions to his AA group are incalculable. Same with his neighborhood association.
In better health, the next to last time we met, those of us in the steak group took on the duties of cooking. This last time, he did almost everything himself, though barely able to stand, unwilling to relinquish, finally, his lifelong role as host to the failings of body and time, until that was beyond his control.
Mine died in his sleep; hers died a few hours after they removed all of the various machines of life support.
And yet, hers we celebrated at a moving funeral service two days ago, where lawyers and family members, including my wife, rose to speak of his rich embrace of life, demonstrating amply that he had "sucked the marrow" out of it. At least until these final years. There was ample laughter at his antics, sorrow for our loss, a shared celebration of his life.
And my mentor has left specific instructions that there will be no service, no funeral to commemorate his years. Three days after his death, indeed, not even an obituary. It appears that whatever remembrance will take place will be left to the whims of men who gathered to eat steak and to celebrate what once was, for a gathering at his home was always about a school and a life that had been. That was the expectation. That was always the expectation.
And so, what judgement, you ask? None from me. Men who lived and died, who led and retreated, who affirmed and confused, and who leave friends and families to try to figure out the same things that they did. For now, both of us, and many others I know, are grappling with their conclusions.