Friday, January 1, 2010

David and Jonathan

The Torah has many lessons about many aspects of life that can be relevant to almost everyone, in one way or another. Some only become clear at different stages and phases of life. There are many Biblical models of friendship but one that is most striking is that of David and Jonathan. Their relationship is particularly interesting because while they should have been competitors for Saul’s throne, instead they were best friends. We all should be lucky enough to have at least one such relationship in our lives. I have been fortunate to have many, and since moving to Israel to make many more. Recently, I was thinking of one of my earliest, substantial, and most meaningful friendships with a dear friend whose name happened to be David. No, we did not reconnect on Facebook. A mutual friend found some letters from 25 years ago that he had written to her, and shared them with me. It brought back vivid memories of early morning classes and late night conversations from the 1980s. I met David during my freshman year of college. We were fraternity brothers and became instant friends. David became the closest thing to an older brother that I had. We shared hopes and fears, talked politics and religion, cooked meals, and drank together. There was scarcely anything that David and I didn't talk about, and we learned many things from each other. My friendship with David was, and remains, one of my most cherished relationships. When I met David he had just returned to college following surgery and recovery from having a grapefruit-sized tumor removed along with a large piece of his colon. His prognosis was very good, and he returned to finish his senior year at Emory. In addition to studying, David did a good bit of informal teaching, about recovery from cancer. I never knew about the effects of morphine, either as a hallucinogen or as a pain killer, or what a colostomy bag was. A grandmother had died from cancer, but I never knew what recovery was like, or about what one who has/had cancer and is in recovery was thinking. I didn’t know David before his cancer, but he was entirely open with me about all his thoughts, not just about cancer, but about life. In addition to being open about his hopes and fears, David retained an extraordinary sense of humor. It was common to have nick-names in the fraternity and David was no different. His was “semi-colon.” His fraternity jersey had our three Greek letters on the front and, while others had their names or nick names on the back, David’s simply had the punctuation mark “;” representing the name by which we all knew him affectionately. Having cancer forced David to confront many things that an average college student never considered, or even knew about. David graduated and stayed in Atlanta for a while where our friendship continued to flourish. He returned to New Jersey and was preparing to go to medical school when, following a typical post surgical medical checkup, it was discovered that his cancer had returned. David had to put medical school on hold to deal with more chemo and other treatments in order to beat the cancer again. If medical schools took credits for personal experience, David would surely have entered far ahead of his classmates. His understanding of medicine, cancer, surgery, recovery, and both the physical and psychological side effects made David far more aware and sensitive to aspects of medicine that most medical students would take years to learn. And it drove him to get well so he could be the best doctor he could be. In the 1980s, before e-mail, Facebook, cell phones, or even long distance phone plans, keeping in touch long distance was harder. David and I did so with an occasional phone call, and the now antiquated art of letter writing. My studies kept me busy in Atlanta and I rarely traveled to the north. After graduating, I kept busy finding a job and planning my second visit to the USSR to continue my advocacy for Soviet Jews. David had been a huge supporter and participant in my advocacy for Soviet Jews. We talked about it all the time, and why it was imperative to do everything we could. In October 1987, I returned to my parents’ house in Jew Jersey for a visit en route to the USSR. This trip was less nerve stressful than my first trip two years earlier, partly because I was going with a friend, and partly because I had already been there before. But I was still nervous. David was too ill at the time to drive himself to visit me before my departure, so he had his parents drive him the 90 minutes to my parents’ house so that he could visit me, encourage me, and partly live this impending experience through me while giving me an outlet for my nerves. Among the things in my life that I’ll never forget was that visit. David was bald again, thin bordering on emaciated, and his bright eyes were sunken, all as a result of the new round of chemo that was trying to arrest the cancer. Yet, as physically weak and broken as he looked, David was vibrant and full of life. His eyes were piercing and his interest in the mission on which I was about to embark was intense. David was interacting with me on every level of his being. As he left, we embraced and agreed that I’d be in touch after my safe return. He was not worried about my safety, but he knew I was. I returned to the US after an “adventure” filled trip and filed lengthy reports with the Soviet Jewry organizations and many individuals that had facilitated my trip. I sent David a copy. Settling back into a routine, I got a job, winter came, and my life went on. One day I got a call that David had died. My emotions ranged from shock, sadness, and denial. I realized then that David probably knew he was dying which is why he made the effort to visit me two months earlier. But I had not understood that. Maybe he didn’t want me to. I was in Atlanta and the funeral was in New Jersey the next day amid a winter storm. As much as David was, and always will be, one of my closest friends, I still regret not having been able to make it to the funeral. We held a memorial for David with friends from the fraternity, Emory, and all over Atlanta. This was important closure for us all, and even though he had left Atlanta several months earlier, the void of his death was pronounced. If David had lived, ours is a relationship that would have transcended the need for Facebook because we’d have been in close touch even throughout these many years. We’d have danced at each others’ weddings, shared the blessings and challenges of parenthood, stresses and achievements of work, and endless thoughts on life. Instead, I have a child named for David who I hope will grow up knowing at least this much about the man behind the name. I have been blessed with many “David and Jonathan” relationships since then. Not all my closest friends are named David, but my friendship with David is the model upon which I base many of these relationships since. David’s death was, and is, a big loss in my life. It has not been replaced by other relationships, but supplemented by them. David taught me many things, including dealing with mortality. As I have gotten older, one of the best things that I have been able to take away from my friendship with David is to realize that life is finite and that the “David and Jonathan” relationships that we are fortunate to have are ones that should never be taken for granted.

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