A farewell to good friends

You know how it goes. You lose track of friends and then one day, someone gets in touch to say the friend has left us to our mortal pursuits.

Two such messages came recently within the span of a few days.

The first was an e-mail from a stranger who knew I had been friends with John Vasconcellos, the California legislator who was a weaver of big dreams and a lampoon target of Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury.”

In many cases, his dreams became reality and are accepted wisdom and practice today. He is probably best known for his creation of a commission to study the importance of self-esteem in childhood development. Always a few steps ahead of the Zeitgeist, Vasconcellos, who was 82, was first to pose questions others hadn’t thought to ask.

I got to know John while working in California for the San Jose Mercury News in the 1980s. We met when I interviewed him for a story, but we became friends in the most curious way — by telephone from our respective hospital rooms. Both confined — he for a heart attack, I was on bed rest pending childbirth — we found solace and humor in each other’s company. Like the two prisoners in “The Count of Monte Cristo,” we were tap-tap-tapping to see if anyone else was there. Speaking daily at length, we laughed at our mutual predicament and delved deeply into subjects both philosophical and mundane.

Eventually, we left our institutionalized lives and got busy again. Even in retirement, John continued to seek ways to make life better for the people he served. He was “wacky” in the way we all should be wacky, wearing his tender heart on sleeves that were always rolled up.

The second message came from an old friend from an earlier era, those halcyon days of graduate school when everyone was young and everything seemed possible. I detected dried tears on the other end and perhaps, too, evidence of a wake already begun.

Richard Jaeggi — Richard the Good, I always called him — had died unexpectedly at 60. An old soul and a young pilgrim, Richard was one of a core group of us in Tallahassee, Fla. — seven or eight perpetual students and a handful of unrequited lawyers — who wanted to be writers. For a couple of years, we were inseparable. We stayed up late playing “Dictionary,” reading aloud from heavy volumes weighted with meaning, watched countless sunrises and made regular sprints to the beach to play horseshoes and consume bushels of Apalachicola Bay oysters.

One summer, we convened Sundays to rehearse a play that David, our group’s elder muse, had written. We performed it only for each other but took our roles seriously, memorizing our lines and acting earnestly before an imaginary audience.

Richard was the quiet, contemplative one, always watching and smiling as one who knows the secret. He walked everywhere because, he said, he liked to walk. Richard was without peer at “Dictionary,” a game in which players compete to make up the most convincing bogus definition to some arcane word. I even remember one of his definitions — “the turned cuff on a medieval gown.”

Eventually, the sun set on these golden days. Richard wandered off to Nepal with the Peace Corps; I abandoned a PhD program at Florida State and headed north toward an accidental newspaper career. Though we mostly lost touch, there are no friends like those from the time when life seemed infinite and death was a poem named “Annabel Lee.”

In ways large and small, Richard and John were cut from the same cloth. With their passing, we lost two powerful if humble voices. On a personal level, I’ve lost two friends I always meant to revisit. Therein lies a moral for us all.

What was once poetry becomes nonfiction in due course. I wish I could give old John a call and laugh about his silly heart, but he got away before I looked up. I wish I could visit Richard to remember what it was like when life was a sunrise and friends were forever. But Richard went walking again when I thought there was still plenty of time.

Such is life, alas, but the ultimate deadline reminds us that it doesn’t have to be.

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