Goodbye, My Friend
SoMA contributor Roger Cox passed away on June 30. Mary Beth Crain remembers our good friend.
By Mary Beth Crain
I recently lost my dear friend, Roger Cox, to cancer. He wasn’t the first of my friends to die, and he certainly won’t be the last. But he was the one to whom I was closest, and whose absence has shaken me profoundly. This incredible man, with the unforgettable laugh, a cross between an irrepressible chuckle and a cheerfully maniacal cackle, will never be at the other end of the phone again. I will never be able to call him and hear his genuine delight at the sound of my voice, and his inevitable, “Mary Beth! How ya doin’, kid?” I’ll never be able to share another dinner with him, or another intense discussion about art, literature, my novel, his screenplay, crazy people—or, as he once titled a short story, “Well-Heeled Drunks and Their Oddly Shaped Children”—our pets, our regrets, our joys, our dreams.
Dreams. Roger was a great dreamer. In fact, he described himself as a dreamer, not a doer, but then, that was his birthright as a Pisces. Not that he put any stock in astrology, or, as he graciously put it, “that horseshit.” His ideal life, he said, was to just sit and read and let the world float by. When he was little, his mother would chide him for not going out and doing stuff, for just sitting and staring out the window, lost in some dream or other.
But Roger wasn’t lazy—far from it. He was always doing something, writing something or planning to write something, but his joy was more in the thinking and planning than in the finishing. He was a perfectionist, and even when he wrote a great piece, one that made me gasp in awe at his uniquely brilliant style and shout with laughter at his totally off-the-wall humor, he was never satisfied with it. Which is why we at SoMA only printed two of his pieces. We were always after him to get us more, but he was never quite ready to oblige us, because he wanted whatever he sent to be “good, really good, damn good.” Thank God. There aren’t a whole lot of writers out there who expect that much from themselves, who aren’t absolutely in love with the sound of their own words, who don’t get huffy and puffy and hoity and toity if you dare to edit them. Roger appreciated criticism, and editing, and any other help you wanted to give him, which is always the sign of a good writer. And Roger was a great writer, and the world could have found that out, if he’d lived just a little bit longer. I’m convinced of that.
Roger was one of those rare human beings whose departure leaves a void in the life of everyone who knew him. He was so interesting, and so entertaining, that you just wanted to be around him. As far as his profession goes, well, he had quite a few. At one time he was the head writer, producer and show director of a number of theme parks, among them Disney World in Orlando. He taught English and special ed to kids from 5 to 17, and they all loved him. He penned remarkable short stories and pithy articles on eccentric and eclectic subjects. He was a vastly talented actor, who had done quite a bit of stage back east, and directed as well. He was the funniest guy I knew, a stand-up comic who brought the house down when I saw him at Pasadena’s illustrious Ice House, the breeding ground for many a famous comedian. He was short—maybe 5’4”—with a sturdy little body, a close shaven head to minimize his thinning gray hair, tortoise-shell glasses that gave him a literary Arthur Millerish look, a nice-looking, wonderfully kind face, and a smile that could light up a black hole. Among his passions were military aviation, history, stray dogs and cats, and books, books, books. And golf.
I, too, am a golf enthusiast, so when Roger was going through one of his many rounds of chemo, I sent him the complete Bobby Jones “How I Play Golf” DVD and book collection. Bobby Jones was one of the most famous golfers of all time, and in 1930, Warner Bros. did a series of film shorts in which Jones gives golfing tips to W.C. Fields, Joe E. Brown, Edward G. Robinson and other big stars of the day. They’re wonderfully corny—everybody’s in their old plus fours, and Jones has the acting ability of a tree—but they’re also eternally amazing, for nobody played golf like Bobby Jones. He was poetry in motion and every shot was perfect. He’d have given even Tiger a run for his money.
When Roger got the much-anticipated package, well, you would have thought heaven in a box had arrived. He was so excited! He called to brag about the gift to all his golfing buddies, who, he proudly reported, were green with envy, and he’d sit in front of the TV for hours, watching the DVD over and over and planning for the day he could get back out on the golf course and put some of Jones’s advice to use. As I’d hoped, it gave him something to distract himself from the chemo, pain and fear, and something to give him the fight he needed to maybe even beat the odds. That, unfortunately, wasn’t to be, but I think he once told me that when he was watching Bobby Jones, he didn’t have cancer. I’m so glad I could do at least that for him.
Losing a friend is a strange, particularly mournful experience because in some ways it tends to come under the classification of “disenfranchised grieving.” Disenfranchised grieving is when you’re not eligible for “real” grief and real condolences. You know, like the mistress who can’t even go to the funeral of the guy she’s loved for 20 years, and who can’t really tell a soul about her pain. Not that my friendship with Roger was clandestine, or anything, but when a friend dies, you don’t get a lot of sympathy or understanding because people don’t take it all that seriously.
After all, you weren’t family. You weren’t the spouse, or the child, or the sister, or the brother, or the parents, or even the boyfriend or girlfriend. I wanted to talk about it—oh, how I wanted to talk about it—but there was nobody to talk to. Nobody who could quite understand the searing sense of loss I felt, the deep, vast sadness at the realization that an irreplaceable part of my life was gone forever. There was nobody I could rage to at the unfairness of it all—Roger was only 62 and had suffered gracefully and nobly for three awful, chemo and radiation filled years, a completely undeserved sentence for one of the sweetest, gentlest people God had ever had the good sense to create.
As one gets older, one’s friends become that much more precious. They understand you as no one else does, and vice versa. You can talk about nothing and everything, and by the same token, there’s much than can go left unsaid, because words aren’t needed. But now, when you reach your 40s, and 50s, and 60s, your friends begin to die, and you don’t make new ones to take their place. I could use that familiar analogy of dying autumn leaves, but that’s an over-done and essentially misleading cliché. Those leaves will be reborn in the spring, but a dear friend never grows back. You’ll never get another to replace him. He’s gone forever, and you have to live with the emptiness.
And above all, when a friend dies, you are forced to confront the tenuousness of existence. Life becomes as fragile as spun glass. You wonder, when you go to bed at night, if you’ll wake up in the morning, and when you wake up, if today will be the day that the glass will shatter and the light will go out forever. I had another friend some years back who came to my house with his wife on Sunday for dinner, and on Monday was dead. He’d gone to work, complained of a headache, and the next thing they knew, he was crumpled on the floor and that was that. A brain aneurism, they said. He was 43. His wife would say that Roger was lucky. He had 19 years on Todd.
The past couple of years I’ve been watching my 87-year-old mother decline from Parkinsons. It breaks my heart, to remember what she used to be, and to see her now, small, frail, terrified of Alzheimers, clinging to bits of her memory like a child reaching out in the dark for something, someone to hold. I often weep for her, and for all the other old people in her nursing home, who sit in their wheelchairs all day long, staring off into space, waiting for their final visitor. And then I take a deep breath, and buck up, and remind myself that, for goodness sakes, she’s 87. As sad as it is, to grow old and infirm, she’s had a good, full life. If only Roger could have lived to 87. Or Todd. My mother’s lucky. We all have to die, none of us is going to escape, so I should actually be rejoicing, that I’ve had her all these years.
I think about death so much these days. And I’m afraid, and wish I could have talked to Roger about it. I hadn’t seen him and his remarkable wife, Sybil, since last year when I moved from L.A. to Michigan, and although I desperately wanted to get back to L.A. to visit him once more, he died before I could make the trip. But we talked once or twice a week, and he was always cheerful, upbeat, and, incredibly, far more interested in me than he was in himself. Although he was in constant pain and on a hundred different meds, he worried about me when I got the flu, and was full of lectures about my taking care of myself. And I’ll never forget that day, a few weeks before he died, when I got a $60,000 book deal. Now Roger never had much money, and would have given anything for a book deal himself. I didn’t even want to tell him about it when I called to find out how he was doing. But as usual, he only wanted to know how I was doing.
“What’s new, kid?” he asked, all ears. “Any big deals lately?”
“Well, as a matter of fact…” I told him my good news. And he let out a happy whoop, just as if it had happened to him, not me.
“Good for you, kid! Gee, that’s so great! Syb!” he yelled to his wife. “Mary Beth got a $60,000 book deal!” And Sybil, equally delighted, yelled, “That’s WONDERFUL!”
Oscar Wilde once observed, “Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend’s success.” Roger had that fine nature. So does Sybil. Would you believe that not a week before Roger died, she made a point of sending me a CD of old Jack Benny radio shows for my mom? If I had been her—and I had been her because when I was 45, her age, I, too, lost my beloved husband to lung cancer—I wouldn’t have been able to think about anyone else, let alone somebody’s mother I’d never even met.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Roger was how calm he seemed when he knew his life was ending. He was by nature an extremely nervous person, who worried constantly, especially about his health, and could also be so impatient you wanted to shake him and tell him to just chill out. And yet, when the fate he’d feared for so long became a reality, he seemed to finally acquire that sense of equilibrium that had so eluded him. Except for when he was down with pain and fatigue, he maintained a steady, cheerful outlook. Not optimistic, but accepting. His mother had died of lung cancer, in his arms, and as he matter-of-factly put it, “I know what’s coming, kid. I’ve been there.” He also belonged to a Buddhist meditation group, and I’m sure that gave him strength, although for the life of me, when he first told me about this some years ago, I was shocked. How could he be so nervous and impatient if he was doing meditation?
“You should have seen him before he started meditating!” Sybil informed me.
When Syb called on June 30, to tell me that Roger had passed away, I didn’t cry. I just felt all the air go out of me. I couldn’t believe it, actually—it just wasn’t real. And I felt so badly, that I’d never gotten to see him before the end. Maybe if I’d just tried harder, to make the trip…I was beset by guilt.
The weeks went by and still I didn’t cry. I wondered if I ever would. And then, the other night, I happened to catch what was arguably the best episode of that beautiful ‘80s TV series “The Wonder Years,” in which 13-year-old Kevin’s revered math teacher, Mr. Collins, offers to tutor him. One day, just before the big exam, Mr. Collins abruptly tells Kevin that he can’t meet with him. “But the test is in two days!” Kevin protests. “You’ll just have to do it on your own,” Mr. Collins replies.
Feeling betrayed, Kevin decides to pay Mr. Collins back by turning in an F exam, covered with smart-ass comments like “Who cares?” and “Factor this!” When Collins tries to talk to his angry young student, Kevin turns his back on him and walks out of the classroom. He spends the weekend feeling guilty, and, on Monday morning, finds out that Collins died the day before, of a heart condition. He’d had to cancel their tutoring sessions because he went to the hospital.
If Kevin thought he knew what guilt was before, whammo. But wait. He’s given another chance. Collins never turned in Kevin’s grade to the principal, who’s taken over his class. So Kevin gets to take the test again. This time he studies like hell, and makes an A--for Mr. Collins. Or, as Collins would have corrected him, “Not for me, Mr. Arnold—for you.”
At the end of this wrenching episode, they played the Karla Bonoff/Linda Ronstadt song, “Goodbye, My Friend.”
Oh we never know where life will take us
So goodbye my friend
Life’s so fragile and love’s so pure
But I’m okay now
And finally, I was able to cry. For Roger. For Sybil. For myself. For life, which is so precious and so fleeting that even as you’re living it, it’s gone. I think of my mother, and how I take her out, to dinner or to a play, and we have a wonderful time and two days later she doesn’t remember it ever happened. I think of a stone thrown into a lake, and the ripples it makes, and then the lake is still and the stone never was. Did you know that the old song we sang as kids, “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream” is actually a spiritual metaphor for the ephemeral and illusory nature of the physical world?
Lately I find myself wondering what’s real and what isn’t, when death will come for me, and if I’ll be ready. I don’t have any answers. I just miss Roger like hell. Goodbye, my friend. My dear, dear friend.
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain's last essay for SoMA was A Jewish Tale of Woe.
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