I was casually checking email the other night when I came upon one with the subject line “The Passing of Arthur”. Sent to a small group of Artie’s friends, his son sent an email to let us know that a few nights earlier, Artie had been riding a bus near home when he went into cardiac arrest. Efforts by doctors at the nearby hospital failed to revive him.
“Thank you for knowing and loving my father” he wrote at the end of his message, which brings on a fresh batch of tears every time I think about it.
Knowing and loving Artie, in the manner that I did for 11 years, was one of the grandest chapters of my life. It started out in an unorthodox manner, and for some, was and may remain verboten. I long ago quit caring about that, although it troubled me at the start, to the extent that it became a habit to reference him constantly and yet rarely mention him by name as the years went by.
Artie and I met one afternoon in his apartment in New York City. I was a case worker for an agency that served brain injury survivors. Artie was a brain injury survivor, a three-time stroke survivor. I remember running all over the city on that overcast day, and wishing I didn’t have that one last stop to make before heading home for the evening. He lived a long walk from the subway, and as I never liked waiting on the cross-town bus, I hustled towards Tenth Avenue. I got to the building, climbed the front steps and rang the doorbell. Being severely hard of hearing, I never knew for sure when the tenant was buzzing me through the locked doors. I felt the door frame for the vibration and after a couple of false starts; I got into the lobby and made my way up the stairs. In the doorway of 2B I saw a man who looked older than the stated age on the paperwork, just shy of his 57th birthday. About 5’7”, pale skin, light strawberry blonde hair, and large, shining blue eyes. He was neither unfriendly nor especially welcoming as he allowed me into his apartment. The living room was rather dark, the blinds drawn. Up on a wooden platform was a cat. Sparkle was completely white with blue eyes, and entirely deaf, but otherwise able-bodied and very intelligent.
I began my intake process in the usual fashion, to determine the need for services and supports. I was intrigued with some of the artwork he had up on the walls and asked about them. Pictures of people and scenes of far off places, and one was a photograph of a woman lying on her side, her breasts exposed. It was a very intimate and sensuous image. I learned that he had taken that picture–an old girlfriend of his—along with most of the others on the walls. There was a story to go with every one of them, and I was fascinated in part because I am a wanderer, a traveler, and I enjoy hearing about the adventures of others. He had traveled wide and long, and often said that if he could have he would have just traveled on and on. Ultimately, the intake took about a half an hour, for he was not interested in accessing an intensive level of supports, though he eventually acknowledged the need for some daily help. The rest of the visit went on for a couple more hours, as we talked about all sorts of topics: art, spirituality, psychology, history, music. There were many interests that we shared, but that is not so unusual on its own. The feeling that was there made no sense to me and yet I was compelled to touch it; the awareness of interconnectedness with my friend, this man I had just met that afternoon. We recognized it intuitively then, and learned to articulate it later, there was a meeting of soul mates that day. I did not know it right away, but I learned that though he had many friends, he rarely had guests into his home, and yet he continued to welcome me. I felt deeply honored by that alone.
I struggled with the fact of my role in his life. Although I wasn’t providing therapeutic or clinical services to him, there was and is an ingrained message I carry with me about the people I serve in my work through the years: that regardless of anything else, there is an inherent imbalance of power when one is the provider of a service, the other is a recipient. There have been many instances in which I have gone above and beyond to provide supports to individuals I serve. I am aware that altruism always carries a measure of selfishness, and I see no dichotomy in that. Anyone who says such acts are entirely selfless is deceiving themselves. I played this role in his life for about a year and a half. I moved away, and we continued to email regularly and exchange cards at various holidays. He is one of the few people I continued to get birthday cards from via snail mail. He was the most Jewish Gentile I have ever met, a product of growing up along the J train line in Brooklyn, combined with an intense curiosity about everything. The first time I heard him use the word shul (Yiddish for synagogue) I almost fell out of my chair laughing. He understood the culture so well; he could send the most hilariously nuanced holiday cards of anyone I knew.
I could write pages and pages of stories about him and our friendship, the long walks in Central Park, wandering around the medieval architecture of the Cloisters. Meals in Indian restaurants around the city, hangouts in a place that served us coffee while we sat surrounded by greenery. He knew so much about the city of his birth, his life, and though he loved to explore the far corners of India and Africa, he always came home. He loved his children and grandchildren, and no little drama like the Great Blackout of 2003 was going to prevent him from getting from Manhattan to Newark to Colorado, where his son and daughter-in-law had brought their first child into the world. I still don’t know how he managed that, for most fully able-bodied individuals could barely figure out how to survive those difficult days, but he just pushed past all kinds of limitations and did what he wanted to do.
It wasn’t all of those marvelous aspects of our friendship that made him so exceptional to me, why I made sure that no matter what, I fit in a visit with him every time I came back to the city after moving away in 2004. It was love. I loved Artie. I loved him because he had that rare quality of being able to see what is essential, and was generous enough to share what he knew. I loved what I saw in his eyes, how he showed his warmth, his worries, his humor, his ironic view of life. And I loved that he cared for me, and how he was not afraid to show it. He taught me to be a little less afraid of the intensity of my own feelings about many things. I’m going to miss his stories, his teachings, and his poetic messages about life.
I’m really not sure how long it’s going to take to get used to him not being around anymore.
After the initial shock of the news of Artie’s death passed, I actually smiled when I thought about how utterly fitting it was that the last thing he did in this life was ride the bus. He was traveling—from a meeting, most likely, a core feature of the past 37 years of his life, or perhaps from a meditation evening–and doing his thing. Peace, my old hippie friend. Shalom Aleichem.