Age brings with it the gift of history, the ability to look back over decades and see how the chapters of our life unveiled and, if we’re lucky, to see the meaning of the whole story. Even loss.
I’ve had many diverse chapters, including a dozen years working in Silicon Valley back in its heyday, when movers and shakers were accessible, just guys. That time has mostly faded in my memory, but once in a while it all comes back to me with unexpected power. Writing is how I process just about everything. So when someone I knew professionally but as a friend, too, died unexpectedly some 25 years ago, I wrote about it. Phi was a mover and a shaker in the industry I worked in. Influential. And also really really nice. I’d known him a decade, when he died.
I’m not sure many people remember him today. Funny how people fade from memory once they’re gone. I have to admit, he’d faded from mine over the past 20 years. Until I found this piece I wrote about him. It brought me back to that time all those years ago, in vivid color.
It also broke my heart.
But it demonstrated to me how loss can bring with it gifts. In my case, the gift of self-discovery. I hope you like it.
LOSS & DISCOVERY
I got off the plane in San Jose only to find that a friend, colleague and mentor had died suddenly.
I suppose it might have been less of a shock had Bob not blurted out the news as we were leaving his office for lunch. I nearly ran the car off the road and when I saw the doctor later my blood pressure had skyrocketed.
Phil and I last spoke a month ago, just before he left for his beloved Italy. We’d been trying to get together on one of my trips to California or one of his to Orlando, where he served on the board of a high tech company. Usually he was in Florida when I was in California.
“I guess we’re fated not to meet for a while,” I laughed as he told me he and Darlene were off to Italy during my next visit.
“Catch you next time,” he said.
Off to Italy he went and at the end of his second week there he went to sleep and never woke up. He was only 61. The news is stunning. Even after I buy a paper and read the large obituary, it’s inconceivable. I stare at the words and his photo with unseeing eyes.
After lunch I wander the mall in a daze. I’m supposed to be buying a raincoat for my own trip to Europe in two weeks but I can’t focus enough to do so. I buy a cup of coffee at Starbucks and sip it distractedly as I wander aimlessly past shops and bookstores.
I can hear his voice and especially his deep laugh. I can see that impish smile and I can’t believe he’s gone.
It was Phil I went to in the summer of 1995 to discuss leaving the industry and the Valley. He kept my confidence and networked me with his Florida contacts…helpful and supportive as always, and happy for me. A year later, sitting in his office on River Oaks drinking good coffee from the special pot he kept brewed by his desk, we said our good-byes, knowing we’d see each other again.
We talked on the phone and emailed after that…he knew everyone and everything and whenever I needed anything—a contact, a name, information – it was Phil I’d call.
As I walk I re-run the years since we first met…all the many ways this special man managed to keep his integrity in an industry not known for it. The tears are stuck behind my eyelids, just as words stick in my throat when I try to speak.
People who had an impact on my life, friends ands cultural icons alike are dying and I am reminded of my own mortality. Around that time Allen Ginsberg, Pat Paulsen…and now Phil – they remind me that I’m no longer young and that we all come to the end of our terms here eventually.
The service was filled to overflowing with familiar faces and industry names. A photo of Phil stands at the front, along with his favorite tie.
“Phil’s’ not here yet,” Darlene told me earlier. “He’s still at the airport.” The delay was caused by Italian bureaucratic red tape, but I am disconcerted by her choice of words and half expected him to walk in with that smile and laugh.
I sit toward the back of the chapel and watch John Brody as he reads in a mellifluous voice T.S. Eliot’s You Can’t Go Home . He ends the poem with a pause, then, voice breaking, says “Ciao, Phil”, and I can finally cry.
The service is almost over, when the pastor stops short and announces that Phil has arrived. Late for his own funeral, the habit hard to break in death, even as it was in life. A beautiful, inlaid casket is rolled in and the assembly stands and applauds. I find giving a corpse a standing ovation jarring, yet I know it is meant to honor the man.
When the service ends, we file up to the casket to say our good-byes. John Brody is ahead of me and I watch him stand before the casket, gently caressing it, lost in his grief. Time stands still as I watch this intimate farewell. He stand there the longest time, then, he leans down and kisses the casket. I hear him say quietly, “Bye Phil” and he walks off in tears.
I approach and touch the wood. The casket seems so small; I can’t picture Phil in it. My eyes fill and I silently thank him and bid him a loving farewell. I hope he knew what he meant to me.
Unseeing, I walk straight into the arms of an old friend and colleague I hadn’t seen in half a dozen years. We’re both in tears and we sit and talk for a while about our friend. Finally, Dean suggests we have a farewell drink in Phil’s honor. We climb into his white convertible and Thunder Road blares from his stereo as the wind dries our tears and we speed to Saratoga.
There’s a fire going in the familiar bar tucked into the hills under the condo complex where I once lived. We’re the only patrons and we toast Phil with beers and discuss the meaning of life. How good the hand of an old friend feels, especially when it’s drying your tears and handing you a beer.
Too soon, it’s time for us to say goodbye. He’s moving to Boston with IBM and I will head back to Florida in a few days. We exchange email addresses and vow to stay in touch, to visit one another, and to remember what’s important in life.
I watch him drive off, the wind blowing his blonde hair, and I smile. Brought together again despite the miles; Phil’s still networking in death, as he did in life.
I ask myself often, “How do I live a life that matters?” and sometimes, when I look at the ties that connect me and so many wonderful people, resilient enough to stretch over years and thousands of miles and even beyond death itself, I realize I don’t have to find a life that matters.
I already have one.
Here’s Phil Devin’s obituary from 1997.