When Bob texted one evening, I never expected it was to tell me he had died.
I still don’t know who used Bob’s phone to relay the news, but I do know that I stared at the one sentence message — “Bob passed away this morning” — in disbelief. Last I’d heard, Bob had finished his treatment for intestinal cancer and was recovering. Bob was going to be OK. Someone was playing a very nasty, sadistic prank.
Yet, even as I resisted the news, I accepted it.
“Oh no!” I texted back. “I’m so sorry.”
Sorry is a sorry excuse of a word for times like this. While, of course, I felt compassion for Bob’s wife, daughter, siblings and mother — especially his mother; imagine outliving a child! — sorry as in sad, regretful, distressed, or disconsolate didn’t begin to cover the range of emotions I felt as memory after memory after memory of Bob-times pummeled me like a rough surf. Each was lovely, overwhelming, even refreshing in a weird way — reassuring me that Bob wasn’t really gone; when I missed him, I could order up a memory like takeout spring rolls. But the memories stung, too — sea salt in my wound because, let’s get real, no recollection is a match for the real thing.
I was also bewildered. Bob and I were longstanding pals. Still, we weren’t that close. If we had been, I’d have known he’d taken a turn for the worse. So why was I taking this so hard, crying “Oh, Bob, no. Oh, Bob, no.”
Joni Mitchell supplied a partial answer in “Big Yellow Taxi”: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” she sang. And, as much as I hate admitting this, I did take Bob a bit for granted. It never occurred to me that, cancer or no cancer, he wouldn’t always be there.
I have vowed to learn my lesson. I’ve met my goal, too — oh, maybe 50 percent of the time. To better my odds, I list daily in my journal one friend/colleague for whom I’m grateful, following this with a “thinking of you” text or email or, better yet, a random act of kindness, even if that kindness is simply saying a prayer.
Increasingly, I find myself doing this for strangers on the street or ahead of me in line — without even trying! Years ago, I’d sing along with John Lennon’s “I Am the Walrus.” Much of the song is gibberish. Who sits on a cornflake? The opening lyrics, however, nail it:
“I am he as you are he as you are me
“And we are all together.”
And all you need is love. Which Bishop Desmond Tutu calls ubuntu. “A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good,” he explains. “For he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole .”
I met Bob because I handled PR for an orchestra and he was a music reviewer. But Bob was also a staunch Presbyterian who, in his 60s, became a pastor. Look at me, Bob — propelled by your death to launch into a sermon! Are you smiling?
Which reminds me of a favorite Dr. Seuss quote:
“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”
Thank you, Bob. Thank you for calling to chortle when I wrote “flamingo music” instead of “flamenco” in a press release. For advising me to “close my eyes and listen to the music” when I was stumped by “The Ring.” For informing me after a less-than-stellar performance, “I’m going to do you a favor and not review this.” For countless coffees and email exchanges, where we’d discuss everything from my divorce and church politics to the relentless, often thankless challenges of marketing classical music to how music not only reflects but fuels faith.
I learned of Bob’s death on a Thursday evening. That Friday morning, I wandered outside to check on my plants, which included a deader-than-dead tree in the corner. Only the day before, I’d considered hanging ornaments on it to make it less of an eyesore.
Someone had beat me to it. Each ugly grey branch was strewn with blossoms.
“Hi, Bob,” I said.
It turns out that “Bob” is a peach tree. And what do peaches symbolize? Immortality.
An avid gardener and copywriter, Jenine Baines heads to the garden for inspiration/relief from writer’s block. She is currently attempting to unearth an agent for her book of essays, “You Don’t Have to Tell Everybody Everything: Confessions of a Chatty Cathy & Late Bloomer.” Her works can also be found on Medium.com.