When Mitch started having symptoms, I wanted to care. But I didn’t.
We’d been friends since we were teenagers. We were on opposite coasts for college, but landed in the same engineering graduate program and then took our Masters degrees into the same surprisingly high-paying starter jobs at the same prestigious and growing tech firm. He moved up the ranks faster than I did through a combination of ability and ambition, bolstered by shameless glad-handing and, as I learned later, remorseless backstabbing. I didn’t share his vision of career advancement. I enjoyed the science and engineering aspect of what we did, while he wanted to be a manager, a boss, a master of the universe. When he threw me under the bus and convinced our boss that a missed deadline on an important project was due to my negligence and poor judgment – an outrageous and self-serving lie – that’s when I understood what a fourteen-carat gold-plated son of a bitch he could be.
A year later, our boss retired and the Board of Directors elevated Mitch to CEO. It didn’t hurt that he’d married the Chairman’s daughter and spent many weekends and holidays at the family homestead, a garish mansion that overlooked the bay. He had successfully maneuvered himself into what he had aspired to all along, and now, fully besotted with power, he proceeded to make my life as miserable and my career prospects as dim as possible. I was assigned only projects that had inadequate funding, absurd deadlines, and capriciously demanding clients who were delusional about how things happened in the real world. I assumed Mitch was trying to drive me out, and he finally did. I took a job at a competitor where the work was interesting if not cutting edge, the compensation substantial if not grandiose, and the aggravation minimal. I was angry at first, but because I also felt lucky to be rid of him, I didn’t have to suffer any lingering bitterness.
The funny part was that Mitch, once I was no longer his employee, reached out to me, intending to rekindle our friendship. He claimed that because he wasn’t my boss anymore, we could actually resume our social life without the appearance of impropriety or favoritism. He actually said this with a straight face.
He could be gregarious and fun, that much was true, and soon my wife Maureen and I were regulars at the house overlooking the bay – the old man had passed and Mitch’s wife Beth inherited the place – for tennis weekends or Fourth of July fireworks or New Year’s Eve parties. I acquiesced to going to these things, even though Mitch was a narcissistic and insufferable blowhard whose bellowing voice surrendered the floor only sparingly. Mitch and I were basically living as “frenemies” – longtime friends who didn’t much like each other – but the meals were always top shelf, the views spectacular, and since the wives really seemed to like each other, I figured why not.
But as I said, when he started to have symptoms, it was hard to care.
One day, he complained of light-headedness as we were leaving the tennis court, then lost his balance and fell. That same weekend, he twice dropped himself into a chair so as not to fall, and while he thought no one noticed, I did. A month later, I found him passed out in the cabana by the pool, and he begged me not to tell Beth, or Maureen for that matter. My wife and I were driving home after dinner on Labor Day, during which he’d been uncharacteristically quiet at the table, when Beth called and pleaded for us to come back and help take him to the hospital. He had some sort of seizure or mini-stroke, but insisted she not call an ambulance. I guess having me transport him rather than some anonymous EMT made him feel like he was my boss again.
In the brightly-lit hospital examination room, the three of us stood dumbfounded as Mitch, prevaricated, withheld, and outright lied to the doctor in order to minimize what was happening to him – at one point he even shushed Beth when she tried to interject – and was eventually sent home with a fistful of pills – I guess these days the insurance companies don’t pay to have anyone held over at the hospital for further diagnosis – and we helped Beth lower him into bed and headed home.
Later that week, Beth called and begged me to come to the house and just sit with him. I agreed, trying not to sound as put out as I was. When I got there, I learned that he wasn’t eating and had become confused and belligerent. At one point, he seemed to drift off to sleep in the middle of a conversation. He looked pale and gaunt, even as he strained to give the impression he was recovering.
It also became clear that I was his only friend, which didn’t surprise me. He was thoughtless and self-centered when he wasn’t being overtly mean-spirited, and he had alienated just about everyone who knew him. But I didn’t feel like much of a friend because of how little I really cared about his illness. I tried to care, but I couldn’t muster any real empathy for the circumstances of such an unlikable jerk, our long history notwithstanding. I had a slight pang of guilt over my dispassion and detachment, but not enough to become invested in what I regarded as the imminent and inevitable outcome.
Then he died. Mercifully in his sleep, although my first reaction was that it was a mercy he didn’t deserve. When Beth called to tell me, I wasn’t shocked, this moment had been coming for some time. But as the news sunk in, I became more wistful and nostalgic than I would have expected. We’d been genuine friends and friendly colleagues before things soured, and at that moment, I decided to try to stay focused on that.
The next day, Beth called and asked me to give the eulogy. She said she wouldn’t be able to get through it if she had to give it herself. I wanted to decline, but when she started sobbing, I said yes.
The day of the memorial arrived. I made some notes on an index card, but none of it felt right. And I know that, at times like these, people don’t want to hear, “He was a good friend and an accomplished young man who grew into a power-mad and heartless bastard,” even if it was true.
At the funeral home, the family minister said a few prayers, then introduced me as the oldest friend of the deceased. I stepped to the podium and looked out at the near-empty chapel. Beth and Maureen, Mitch’s three siblings who had lots of questions about the estate when we were introduced in the hallway, several people from Mitch’s company that I remembered from my time there, and a few others. I put my index card on the podium, cleared my throat, and adjusted the mic. I had no idea what I was going to say.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming. I’ve known Mitch Spencer for over forty years. We met in middle school. As a teenager, he was a smart and inquisitive kid who could take apart and reassemble with practiced ease any mechanism he laid his hands on – bicycles, radios, TVs, kitchen appliances, car engines, you name it. This was quite astonishing to the rest of us. A would-be inventor, he was always engineering some sort of Rube Goldberg contraption that would dump water on someone or create an electric shock or blow something up. I don’t think we realized how dangerous all of this was until our friend Bobby was sent to the hospital with second degree burns after one of Mitch’s stunts. I think Mitch, who secretly didn’t like Bobby, took some sadistic pleasure in the so-called ‘accident.'”
There was some nervous laughter in the audience, and I wondered for a moment if this was an inappropriate anecdote. I pushed on.
“Mitch and I didn’t have much contact during our college years. I stayed here on the East Coast and he went out to California. But then, as if guided by destiny, we were accepted to the same graduate program, and then at the same firm where Mitch would eventually become CEO. The West Coast had changed him, and not in a typically California sort of way. A voluble and charismatic raconteur as a young man, he had become serious, terse, sometimes even dour, focused less on friendships, on relationships, than on his career, for which he had clear and ambitious goals. Goals that he achieved at a breathtaking pace. Marrying Beth was one of those goals, and he definitely won the lottery with that one!”
I looked up and saw Beth scowl. I thought I was offering a compliment, but realized it sounded as if I was saying he married Beth to further his career. I actually thought that, but I hadn’t meant to say it. This was not going well.
“Mitch ascended to CEO as the obvious choice of the Board of Directors, because he had ruthlessly positioned himself for the promotion. No, no, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say ‘ruthlessly.’ Maybe strategically, or ambitiously. No, that doesn’t sound right either. What am I trying to say?”
To buy time, I took a tissue from the box on the podium and wiped my eyes. I sensed that my remarks were starting to go completely off the rails. I needed to return to something positive.
“I left the company and watched from afar as he achieved great professional success for himself that also resulted in terrific growth and success for the company and its employees.” His colleagues who are here today can testify to that.”
I looked up and saw a few of them smile and a few others shake their heads, all conveying some version of, “Yeah, right.”
“He and Beth were generous and gracious hosts, and there were many memorable nights and weekends at their marvelous house overlooking the bay. My wife Maureen and I were frequent guests, and when we visited, we could always be confident that the sumptuous meals would be as unfailingly spectacular as the views!”
Mitch’s siblings began mumbling to each other, which indicated to me their probable resentment about never having been invited to the big house.
“When Mitch started getting sick last year, he kept the seriousness of his condition from Beth, from Maureen and me, and from his doctors. In retrospect, we should have anticipated his pridefulness, and been more responsible and active in understanding what was happening to him and making sure the doctors did too. Maybe I should have cared more. Maybe we all should have cared more. “
“For god’s sake, Joel!” Beth yelled from her seat. She stood and stomped out of the chapel.
“Oh hell,” I said. I rubbed my eyes, and looked up at the assembled mourners. “Truth be told, I didn’t really care, or certainly didn’t care enough. To me, Mitch was a shining example of how people can surprise you – and disappoint you! – with how much they’ve changed. Mitch was a likable, admirable kid who, driven by ambition and greed, turned into a cruel and heartless bastard. He was hard to like and just as hard to care about. As his oldest and only friend, I’ll admit that I felt betrayed by this change, and I now understand that I grieved the loss of Mitch many years ago, when he ceased being the Mitch I loved as a boy and turned into … I don’t know … the monster he became. This may not be the eulogy you all came to hear, but it is honest and true to the man whose life we mark today. He was who he was, let’s not kid ourselves. We have all gathered here today, and if nothing else, attention must be paid.”
The people in the chapel were staring in disbelief. I realized I had tears streaming down my face. “Thank you all for coming. Good night.”
I walked off the stage, out of the chapel, and into the parking lot. I sat in my car and waited for Maureen. Even if my eulogy, if you can call it that, didn’t satisfy or comfort the other people, I didn’t care. It worked for me, and I felt good about it. I felt sad, that much was true. But by saying it all out loud, I understood why I once loved Mitch and why I didn’t at the end. I felt free of a weight I had carried, without even being fully conscious of it, for many years. This was closure, I was reconciled, clear-eyed, and at peace about this complicated and exasperating friendship I’d had for nearly all my life. I knew my wife would not share this view, I knew she’d be angry, but if I’m being honest, I didn’t really care about that either.