In the spring, I went away for four days and when I returned I learned my friend Jay had died.
I hadn’t even known he was sick.
I went away for four days, came home, read that sad message, ate a quick dinner, then drove through a rainstorm to see Gordon Lightfoot in concert, something that made no sense to do because I was tired, sad, and had already been away from my family for too long, but M convinced me I should go, and he was right.
Before that concert, I’d seen Gordon Lightfoot in concert three other times. The last time I vowed to be the last; his voice wasn’t what it used to be and it made me sad to hear it. But he had come to a neighboring down, only 30 minutes away. He’d practically come knocking at my door. I had to go.
And I had to go because I’ve loved his music since, well, since before I remember. He’s always been there, first on the car radio, then on my transistor radio. Then, album by album — I went scouting at the used record stores in Harvard Square until I found all them all. I got my first real stereo at thirteen: a sensitive-armed turntable, a receiver, and decent pair of speakers. Every school morning, I’d wake up and put a record on to dress and get ready by. It was often one of Gord’s.
Jay and I met at work, at a software company. I can’t remember when we first figured out that we were both writers at heart, but I first learned to like Jay because he had a terrific (and sarcastic) sense of humor, and a gentle laugh, and he knew a lot about a lot of things I wanted to know, like how to raise chickens and how to farm in Vermont’s short growing season.
We weren’t the kind of friends who kept close tabs on each other. Weeks might pass without our talking, even when we worked in the same building. Later, when I left that job for another, we’d meet from time to time for lunch at a local truck stop where the pie was good. We’d talk poems, and writing. He said he knew he had some books in him. He wrote one, about chickens, but it didn’t really “count” for him. He wanted to publish a book of poems.
When he went on a trip to Ireland, he sent me a postcard of a painting of our mutually favorite poet, Seamus Heaney.
Our friendship would wax and wane. We never had a falling out; we just drifted apart from time to time, sometimes a year or more would pass and one of us would write (often around our birthdays, which were on consecutive April days) and suggest getting together. I never ever meant our last get-together to be our last.
I hadn’t even known he was sick.
When you wake up to the promise
Of your dream world comin’ true
With one less friend to call on
Was it someone that I knew
Away you will go sailin’
In a race among the ruins
If you plan to face tomorrow
Do it soon
So, I went to this concert thinking about Jay. And when Gordon sang one of the songs I’d most hoped he’d sing, I thought a lot of Jay, and smiled even though I cried, because I always thought of this song as sad-hopeful, a parting, a farewell, at the start of an inexplicably hopeful journey.
Jay and I never talked much about music, and I don’t remember ever talking about Gordon Lightfoot, but by coincidence of timing, they are now somehow tied forever in my mind, which is something I like.
So, tonight, Gordon Lightfoot turns 74. And, Jay, you’re on my mind.
Update: Today, April 7, 2020, on what would have been Jay’s 59th birthday, I discovered that Jay did write that book of poems: Speak (published posthumously in 2017). I’ve just ordered a copy. I’m positive this is the book that counts.