Cribbage with Phil

Posted on July 11, 2019


I sit here as I so often do, trapped between what I “should” be doing, and what is important. Bills, half-finished stories, and a stalled house remodel stacked up around me, while I monitor work emails and ask “what should I really be doing, now that I’m in ‘The Midnight Slide,'” a term from a famous author whose name I cannot currently remember, about that point of night as the day slips away into darkness and oblivion. While I am, for the first time in a very long time surrounded by love and opportunity, the lights are winking out around me.

Before I left for vacation, I found out in one afternoon that two people I love were in hospice and one has cancer for the second time.  I cleared my schedule to see the two people here in Seattle, and could not visit the third who was in NH, but I did make time to see her family, my cousins. I’ll never play cribbage with her again, but I made sure to play with her kids. She died shortly after I returned, and I find that my friend Phil is not going to make it and is in no condition to visit. It only sharpens the point of the relatives I didn’t get to see, and how finite my time is with all of those back there whom I love.

Phil used to come from Alaska to Everett twice a year to visit his mom, and he would stop by Balefire to play cribbage with me. After the bar closed, he would always call me when he was in town and I would always make time to play. We would kill 3 or 4 hours over beer, and talk about life and the things we wanted to do. According to Phil, in a ten minute radius around his house were six rivers where 10 lb ‘bows would swim up and tie themselves on your line. He built a couple of cabins for visitors and I was always going to be one of them. I mean for $200, I could easily fly up any weekend. He had a couple of classic cars he was going to restore, and we even talked about investing in short-sales to flip the houses.  And, Phil understood the midnight slide. He had recently connected with the love of his life only to see her die of cancer. He made the most of his days.

So, we got together every time, except this last time. He called me, and I tried to call him back one hundred times, but his phone had some weird out-of-service error. We don’t have many mutual acquaintances, I contacted the one and never heard back. “Next time,” I thought, “I really owe him that visit.”  That was just a month ago, and I then I got a cryptic message he was in the hospital in Seattle with liver cancer. Despite knowing him for over a decade, I didn’t know his last name, he wasn’t on Facebook, and I had no email for him. I finally tracked him down on the day I flew out, and got to spend less than a minute holding his hand before he drifted off. I scribbled his mom’s number off the whiteboard in the room into the back of the book I carry around and was off to the airport. “They are moving him to rehab,” said the nurse, giving me some hope. But I knew it was false hope.

Phil will be the second Balefire regular we’ve lost this month, I did not get to say good bye to the first. Nor is the first time this has happened to me, to lose someone just before I planned to see them.  I never consciously explored what a good friend Phil was, only now am I realizing how remiss I was in not taking that one weekend out of the 500 weekends I’ve known him to visit.

Given the life of seemingly carefree abandon and physical risk some of my friends may have witnessed, it might surprise you how absolutely terrified I am of death.  And worse, I have bumbled along without a plan, so that when I am gone, there will be no mark however brief for my time here. I think this is why people die: to focus our mind on our short time here. And, this is why I do try, I really do, to keep in touch with the very few friends I have. Phil, you deserve to go gently into that good night, but sometime soon, I promise, I plan to rage, rage against the dying of the light. In the meantime, let’s not go fishing, write that story, play that card game, have that drink, build that bike, brew that beer “someday.” Let’s do it now.

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