This happened to me a couple of years ago. It was sometime in November, which maybe explains why it haunts me to this day.
It was a cloudy, overcast morning before Thanksgiving. I was still groggy from sleep, and as I drank my coffee I recalled how I had just seen my old friend Phil.
I'd been sitting in my office at work, behind my desk, looking out through the glass wall. Someone had pasted a notice on the outside of the glass, so I stood up to see what it was. As I circled around my desk, Phil appeared at my doorway -- tall and thin with bushy black hair and a big smile. He came in as though nothing had happened. He was walking a little funny, but gave me his usual throaty laugh.
"Phil!" I said in astonishment. "You're here!"
"Yeah, I was just down the hall," he said, pointing outside my door. "Thought I'd come by and say hello."
He had some papers tucked under one arm, and set them down on the corner of my desk. And that's when I noticed he was using crutches. They were metal, the kind that go halfway up your forearms.
He caught me looking at the crutches. Then he looked me straight on, with a sly grin on his face. "Yeah, I recovered," he said, acknowledging what I knew. "I'm okay, all except my legs. They don't work too well so I have to use these crutches."
"Wow," was all I managed to say.
"It's not too bad," he said reassuringly.
I still couldn't believe he was here. But his laugh was real, for sure. I looked down at the papers he had dropped on my desk. They were written in some kind of Chinese characters. "That's great, Phil," I said, trying to regain my composure, trying to be cool about it . "So what are these papers?"
"Oh, yeah, I've got to hand these out to some people," he said. Then, seeing I was puzzled by the strange lettering, he explained, "I've been doing a lot of traveling."
"That's good," I replied. "Where to?"
"Well, I've got to get going," Phil said, ignoring my question. Then as he turned to leave, he dropped one of his crutches, but he kept right on going, walking out the door leaning on one crutch and turning the corner. I bent over and picked up the crutch. It was cold in my hand. Then Phil peeked back around the corner. "Oops, forgot my crutch," he chuckled.
I took a step over toward the door and handed him the crutch. He reached out and took it, then slipped it onto his arm. He turned and hobbled out. "Good to see you," he called over his shoulder as he disappeared down the hallway.
So what really happened? It took place about ten years ago. Phil came over to the office. He was going to treat me to lunch. He was a few years older than I was and had taken an early retirement package from the company. But he lived nearby and often came by to see old colleagues. He'd told me he'd pick me up; he'd be happy to drive. My office was right by the front door, so that day he pulled up in his Corvette and honked. I saw him out my window, and he waved to me.
I threw on my jacket, rushed out the door and jumped into the passenger seat. It was an old Corvette. He'd bought it for his wife on her 40th birthday. But by this time she'd gotten a new car, and he was driving the Corvette . . . for sentimental reasons, I think.
As we headed over to the restaurant we talked about our friends and joked around about various things going on at the office. But I noticed, as he drove, that he handled the steering wheel kind of funny. Was something wrong? I wondered. I didn't say anything. He was talking like the same old Phil. How could anything be wrong?
Again at lunch, it seemed as though he was awkward -- was there something the matter with his hands? I wasn't sure, and decided he should be the one to bring it up if he wanted to, so I kept my mouth shut. Still, I searched his eyes for some kind of recognition, trying to offer a non-verbal signal that it was okay to tell me if something was wrong. But he didn't pick up on it. His conversation, his attitude, his demeanor all said that everything was fine.
We finished lunch and Phil dropped me back off at work, laughing and joking and promising to meet up again soon. "So long," I called to him as I closed the car door.
"Bye bye," he waved.
It was the next day when I heard the news. Phil was dead. He had committed suicide. He had written a note to his wife and daughter, gulped down a bottle of pills, lay down in bed and died.
Why? What happened? Everyone wanted to know.
Phil had Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Nobody knew about it except his family. He'd been hiding it. It's a progressive, fatal disease. No cure. No way out. We could only guess what went through his mind -- that he didn't want to be the object of sympathy from his friends, that he didn't want to become a burden to his family, didn't want to subject himself to the indignities of the inevitable heartbreaking decline.
So he'd ended it on his own terms.
Phil, I don't know if you did the right thing. Who am I to judge? But, damn, you had a lot of courage. It's been over ten years and I still miss you. But thanks . . . thanks for coming to visit me in the night in my dreams.