Issue November 24, 2010

If I fell

A few years ago, a couple of my friends started dating. It scared me because I thought I might get caught in the middle of an ugly situation if things went bad. I knew my best strategy was to steer clear, which I did, for the most part, as I recall, and things seemed to be good for them.

And then, after some time had passed, I had a phone conversation with one of them, one of my oldest and dearest friends; she told me she had cancer. It was a very emotional conversation. She told me she would be dead in six months. I was devastated. She asked me if I would do her a favor; she wanted me to read the words of the song “Red River Valley” at her funeral.

I knew the song, of course, although I didn’t know the words exactly, but, yes, I said, I would read it. When we hung up, I did a Google search and found the lyrics, and I just bawled. I can’t think of a time in my adult life when I have cried as hard. Sitting alone in front of my computer monitor, I struggled to read this classic description of unrequited love through tears streaming down my face as the music ran silently through my head. I was destroyed.

Thereafter, I talked to my other friend. He was pretty upset, too. They hadn’t been seeing each other for very long, and the challenge of a major illness was sure to be extraordinarily daunting.

Over the next few weeks, as I continued to counsel her, we discussed her treatment, and I offered to come and sit with her when she received chemotherapy. I had no experience in this area, and she seemed surprised that I would offer. But, I explained, that’s what friends do.

It was not to be. Throughout our discussions, she had asked me to maintain a confidence about her illness, but after a period of time, I started to think it was strange that she hadn’t lost her hair. I suggested (to my other friend) the possibility that she had fabricated her illness. We agreed it was almost too horrible a possibility to consider, but I suppose it was a mixed blessing of sorts when we determined that was the case; she wasn’t sick, not in any life-threatening way.

It seems to me that all of our relationships suffered from the experience. At one point, I told her that honesty is a necessary element of friendship for me, and we lost touch for a period of time.

Since then, we have spoken casually. I understand she is in recovery, and I have respect for that, but we haven’t really overcome the damage of that episode. And while years have gone by, I have only recently started to recognize the damage that the experience did to my ability to trust … well … anyone.

 

Meanwhile, I am fascinated by Stephen Colbert. To clarify, I am fascinated by the man behind the mask, the man who has created the central character on the right-wing parody news program, “The Colbert Report.” There are two entries for Colbert on Wikipedia, one for the actor/comedian and another for the character he plays, the Rev. Sir Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A., described as a “well-intentioned, poorly informed high-status idiot.” As an embodiment of the grand tradition of the jester, speaking truth to power, raising high the banner of hypocrisy, he has cast himself as untouchable, all the while concealing his true positions.

The most telling single detail ordinarily reported in his coverage concerns the pronunciation of his name. At some point, his father wanted to drop the “T” sound and pronounce his name “Coal-bear,” but maintained the original Irish “Coal-bert” out of respect for his father. When he went to college, Stephen recognized the opportunity to reinvent himself and changed his last name to “Coal-bear.” It was a brilliant move, and it seems to have set him free to become something much bigger than he was.

Even in interviews, Colbert maintains a quasi-commitment to his character. He speaks more candidly about his background, but he maintains a curious distance. As a consumer of entertainment, I am not bothered by this. Stephen Colbert isn’t my friend. And I have nothing invested in the truth behind his communications to me.

This week’s assignment: Inventory. Gratitude. Soundtrack: Eef Barzelay, “Bitter Honey,” “N.M.A.,” etc.