I’ve accompanied some friends who’ve died and grieved many more

Anyone who has reached the age of 60 has assuredly experienced the death of loved ones and a variety of griefs. And so of course there are people who stand out in my memory whom I remember with love.

My friend Ruth Fansler, a member of my Quaker meeting in Philadelphia and a coworker, proved to be an unexpected mother figure. She dressed for comfort, not according to any standards of femininity. She was, when I knew her, a bookkeeper, with exactly the insightful and critical curiosity that suggests. She wasn’t verbose or cuddly. We didn’t know each other all that well. And yet when I received emotional news at work one day when my father was in the hospital, I still would swear she leapt over her desk to come stand beside me and put her hand on my shoulder, because she thought the news was that he had died. When Ruth was comatose shortly before her death, members of our meeting were visiting her and singing to her. One of her sons and his family had arrived, and the other was on his way. I still remember how the heart monitors changed when her son walked into the room, even though she was otherwise unresponsive.

Anyone who knows me at all well soon learns about my great friend Barbara Hirshkowitz, who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57 in 2007. (Only as I write this I do realize I’m older than she was at her death.) I wrote a whole post about her (and preached once about what she taught me.)

But again, the larger context of my original statement was Coming Out Day, and there are particular points to be made about death from my perspective as a 60-year-old gay man. I haven’t just had loved ones and family members die over the course of the years, as everyone does. I came of age in Northern California as the AIDS epidemic began to spread. I lived in San Francisco from 1982–1985. Before I was 25, I had a former housemate die from AIDS, and many more friends and loved ones followed. My story is not in the least unusual. Or, if it is unusual, it is in not having had more friends and loved ones die.

One of the primary lessons I learned as a young man was people die. Not at some abstract time in the future, not some abstract people over there, not abstract groups of people. People die. People just like me. People just like me die, every day.


My first experiences with friends having babies is now in the teens years ago. But a new crop of friends (and my sister!) have been having babies, and this time there’s the joy of mommyblogs. My favorite entries are often the self-confessedly sappy ones like this: Nice work if you can get it.

Whether she ever sleeps through the night or not (I pray the former) the real truth of it is this: the moments I am lucky enough to spend with my sleeping child in my arms will be among the sweetest of my life.

I have such fond memories of when my friend Sam (he of the now teen years) was a baby and Barbara watched him on the mornings she and I had our weekly breakfast, and sometimes on an after-breakfast walk he would fall asleep in my arms as I carried him.