The first indication something was wrong came early on Friday night from Facebook. Cryptic posts sending him prayers and hope and love. Then, around eleven came a text from my cousin Mary Jo, who knew Mack well. My heart sank lower with every word I read. By the time I came to “imminent”, all I could say was, “Oh no.”
I had seen him just two weeks before in Hot Springs, at a wedding reception for Mary Jo’s daughter. Just after Mack arrived Mary Jo took me aside. “I wanted to prepare you before you see him,” she told me. “He’s been sick.” I followed her down a hall in a daze, my thoughts swirling as I tried to process what I had just learned. She led me to the room where the dinner buffet was laid out on a long table. Dozens of guests milled about, but a big man stands out in a crowd, and it took me only a second to find him. I leaned against a high-top table and sipped on a beer while he took his turn at the carving station. When he finally noticed me he smiled and I greeted him with the words that had grown to be our customary salutation over the years. Smiling back, I said, “What do you say, asshole.”
He sat at our table for dinner, and we tried to talk over the music, but the band was very loud. I managed to hear him say he stopped drinking six weeks ago. I asked him if it was hard. He said, “No”, and that surprised me. He told me his mother was worried. “She calls four times a day,” he said. He told me he was going to the Mayo Clinic for a consultation. “That’s part of it,” Mary Jo said later. “He’s hoping to get on their liver transplant list.”
We were classmates in high school, but back then we were not friends. Not because I didn’t know him. In fact, I thought I knew him very well. At seventeen he was everything most high school boys, including me, dreamed of being. He was athletic; quarterback of the varsity for a time. He was teen-idol handsome. He had swagger born from confidence. He was blessed with the physique of a teenage Adonis. Girls flocked to him like moths to a flame. He was the alpha-male, but I thought he was an arrogant jerk.
He had fixed himself a heaping plate of food at the buffet, which I took as a positive sign, because having an appetite is always good, isn’t it? But when he finished he said it was getting late and he thought he better get home. It was barely nine o’clock. I walked him out of the ballroom and tried to think of parting words that were fitting for that moment, but I couldn’t find them. In the end the best I could do was, “Please keep me posted.”
“They tell me things are manageable,” he said. “I’ll call you.”
After high school we took different paths, but we both made our way back home a few years later. I had just graduated from college and was newly married. My wife, without asking my opinion about it, struck up a friendship with his wife, of all people. So we were thrown together by circumstance. I was not enthusiastic at first. But I found at least one of us had changed in the intervening years, and I can’t say for certain who it was. Most likely we both did. We hit it off right from the start. For the next eight years he was my closest friend.
We shook hands in the hall outside the ballroom and said goodbye. “I feel good,” he told me, but his eyes said he was lying. That was the moment I thought I might lose it. From the mezzanine balcony I watched him schuffle across the hotel lobby to the exit, and when he disappeared in the revolving door I knew somehow, deep down, that I would never see him again.
I went back to my table and thought about the countless hours we had spent together when we were younger, three decades ago, before I moved away. I remembered how we played bad golf with regularity, hunted ducks in cold rice fields, took trips together with our wives, played late night games of poker. Before our children were born we met at his house almost every weekend, shooting pool and drinking; the stereo cranked up as loud as we pleased. We stayed until three in the morning, sometimes later. More than once we saw the sun rise. We never worried about anything. We were young and we were bulletproof.
We kept in touch through the passing years by phone and email. It wasn’t the same, but it was the best we could do. He retired at fifty-eight and moved to his house boat on the lake. Not long afterward I went to see him. We stayed up late, talking deep into the night about times gone bye. I drank beer, he had whiskey. The house boat rocked in its slip. Fish splashed unseen in the dark. Moonlight glimmered on the water. I’ll never forget it for as long as I live.
They’ll lay him to rest later today, in a small church cemetery in Arkansas, near the hunting camp he loved. They’ll gather beneath a funeral home tent in the August heat to hear readings from Ecclesiastes. Ladies will fan themselves. Men will tug at tight collars. They will praise his good qualities, and rightly so, because he had many. He will sleep for eternity just a few steps from his father. His mother doesn’t have to worry about him any more.