Friendship, like love, is impossible to define. We recognize its manifestation by sacrifice.
I have just received the news that my friend, Alan Berenbaum, died this afternoon, 27th January 2016, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. We have been friends since the fifth grade when we were both ten-years-old. He would have been sixty-five on the first day of April.
For several years, when we were kids, the three television networks, ABC, NBC, and CBS, would bring out the new cartoon series in September and on that Saturday I would make a point of walking over to his house so we could watch them together. Our parents lived in similar suburban homes just a few blocks apart. Alanís mother banned me from access to the finished attic of their house, where the pool table was, for several months because I had torn the baize making a masse shot.
We had a party in his bedroom. They were putting up paneling and we young friends were invited to paint the walls before the paneling went into place. I painted a figure of a man chained to the wall crying out, ďFor the love of God, Montresor!Ē
Alan was brilliant. I was not. After the fifth grade, we would never be in a class together again until our senior year at high school. But we were always together on the school bus. On the bus ride home on that day we took our SAT College Admission Exams, Alan suddenly cursed when he realized what the correct answer would be to the one question he got wrong. Alan went to Yale.
I visited Alan at Yale. Sat in on a lecture given by the Director King Vidor. Watched 2001: A Space Odyssey thrown against the white wall of his dorm room by a 16mm projector. Ate in the Yale cafeteria where, for the first time, I had Cherries Jubilee. We visited the phenomenally beautiful Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library where the light from outside passes through the marble walls.
When Alanís parents lived in Buffalo, I took a bus to visit him. We went to Toronto to visit the Ontario Science Centre. A young woman of the museumís staff stopped us to do an experiment. She had me draw a picture on a piece of paper. I drew a car. Without using words describing geometric figures, like circle or square, I was to get Alan to draw the similar thing on his paper and tell me what it was. It was easy. I first had Alan draw a series of lines to form a graph. I then labeled points in the graph and instructed Alan to draw straight or curving lines between those points. We amazed the staffer. She said sheíd rarely seen anyone succeed and never as fast as we did
I was driving Alan up to Bennington College in the mountains of Vermont to meet a girl. The wheel came off my 1967 MGB Roadster on the New York State Thruway, flying into the air and bouncing along the road ahead of us. Alan turned to me and said, ďUh, Bruce,Ē and I replied, ďI knowĒ. We brought the sports car to a safe stop on the shoulder. Ended up spending the night in Leeds, New York, while waiting for the replacement knock-off racing hub for my wire-rim wheels to arrive, found and sent courtesy of my father.
There were many nights, I joined Alan at Princeton University, where he was doing his graduate work. I kept him company through the night while he labored. I occupied myself playing some of the earliest video games, like Hunt the Wumpus and Lunar Lander.
Eileen came into Alanís life. It was a sedate party at the house by the lake when my friends and I first met her. This was Maryís house while she was taking care of the horses for the owners of an estate. We parked on the grass and spent long nights around the wood-burning stove that Ken and David installed, drinking and talking, nothing more. When Mary said goodnight and went upstairs to sleep, Eileen and Alan bid farewell and left the party. We talked about them, how wonderful they seemed, Eileen fitting in perfectly with our rather tight clique and we declared her a good match for our dear friend. We didnít know they hadnít left, but were watching the house from their car. When they realized no one else was leaving, they came back. They thought Mary going to bed was a sign that the party was over. Hardly!
Has it been forty years, Alan and Eileen have been together? I brought fresh oysters and a borrowed oyster knife to the dorm room at Princeton; my contribution to the feast they prepared. Slip of the hand, the knife went through my heavy glove and drew blood from my palm. I also broke the blade.
More memories than I have time for. Besides, having just learned the news of my friendís death tonight, I am composing this essay fueled by a bottle of Glenmorangie ten-year-old Scotch, trying to get wasted. Iíve managed to stop crying and can now see the monitor.
We visited with Alan and Eileen, less often than we wished, but a year would not go by without a visit. The two of them loved to cook gourmet and produced spectacular meals when we visited. Ms Keogh, my more significant other, and I would prefer to sit in their kitchen and keep them company while they performed their magic. These are some of my very best memories.
I think of Eileen. It is unbearable to imagine what she must be feeling now. The first time I almost lost Ms Keogh, my cherished companion, I needed someone. I was hoping for my friend David, a bear of a man who I could hug desperately without hurting, but he was far away.
Ms Keogh has chronic renal failure. She was on dialysis for over nineteen years. There were two failed kidney transplants before the third worked. Several times she has outlived the prognosis because medical technology has raced ahead of her illness. Still, after that first time, the several times when she was close to death, I had wanted no one to console me. I found it a nuisance to keep updating others as to developments, having to answer the same questions repeatedly or not having answers for the questions asked of me. It was also annoying to deal with inane remarks of assurance and wishes, but needing to remain polite because people meant well. Worst of all was my mother, who expressed my worst fears aloud, would then ask me what was to be done. And I had to find the strength to console her when it was me needing consoling. There is nothing so bad that my mother can't make it worse. The experience was mine to own and I decided to embrace it.
Eileen described it as a living a nightmare. Alan became sick during the Christmas holidays while they were vacationing in Panama. Our friends have traveled the world and I donít think there is a sea they havenít crossed or a continent they havenít walked. From every foreign land they have taken the time to drop us a postcard. Nightmare is the exact word to describe it.
Alan is dead. Today! He would have had me focus on Eileen, of that I am sure. But she is far away, in Manhattan, and I must trust in those closer to console her. And here, in faraway Cardiff, Wales, I have cried uncontrollably for the death of my dear friend of fifty-four years. I have gone through half a bottle of Glenmorangie Ten-Year-Old trying to get wasted, yet remained sober enough to write this essay.
Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.