Patrick’s Passing (Dennis Aubrey)

My friend Patrick Cunningham died yesterday, the first of one group of important people in my life to pass.

I have been lucky in this regard – a large number of theater friends were taken by the AIDS epidemic, but my parents are in their mid-eighties and are well, both physically and mentally. My brothers and sister are all in good health. So that is one reason that Patrick’s death has struck so hard.

The other was because of Patrick himself, because I was never a good enough friend of his and he never held that against me. Throughout our years together, he always seemed on the periphery of events, never fully part of any group or any activity. He left college and went into the military. He never seemed to find the right career, even though he was bright and talented. Later, in his late 20’s, he contracted Hodgkins disease and went through extensive, damaging treatment. His favorite author was Christopher Morley – who reads Christopher Morley any more? To me, this reflected Patrick’s slightly out-of-step life; he even named his dog “Essay”. There was no reason not to like Morley, but it was hard to see why Patrick liked him so much, for so many years, much less quote him at every possible occasion.

I drifted in and out of his life, but as we both embraced the internet, we kept in touch. I knew one thing as a given – Patrick was single. He never married and he never seemed to have a stable, long-lasting relationship. And he was lonely.

In the 90’s, Patrick moved to the Czech Republic – something to do with Vaclav Havel – but for a reason that I never really understood or bothered to ask and he seemed to thrive there. But it did not surprise me to find him in self-imposed exile, again on the periphery. I thought vaguely at the time that perhaps distance made being an outsider easier for some reason. And then, in 2006, something marvelous happened to Patrick. He fell in love with a woman from near Prague, Lenka, married, and had twin girls Sam and Ruthie. Lenka and the girls adored Patrick and he worshipped them with all the pent-up passion and affection that was locked inside him for all those 60-plus years.

His letters changed instantly, from distant sober reflections to passionately involved life – happiness, worry about his age and health, concerns for Lenka’s health, and sheer unadulterated joy in sharing his life with these three lovely females and assorted dogs and cats. Patrick and I became closer because of his new life.

Patrick and Lenka
Patrick and Lenka

But through all of this, there was a great irony in Patrick’s life that always stayed with me. I remembered that he grew up in La Canada, a prosperous hillside community between Pasadena and Burbank in Southern California. Patrick’s father was elderly when he was born and he was by many years the youngest sibling in his family. The neighborhood in those days did not have a lot of families with young children. I lived in La Canada for a time and passed by his old home – a large Craftsman house on a big lot. I thought many times about Patrick as the skinny, lonely boy playing in that big yard by himself. Patrick’s memories of his father were of a sick old man sitting alone in a dark room. Patrick did not want that for his own children and spent as much time and effort with them as he possibly could.

His last letter to me – written from the hospital – talked about this; “Ruthie keeps calling out for me, and tonight Lenka said she had the camera we gave her for Christmas and found a blurry picture of me and was carrying it around upset and looking for me everywhere. Hearing that had me in tears. I spend more time with my girls than my father ever could with me.”

Patrick is gone, after a month of intense struggle in the hospital, succumbing finally to the ruthless advances of Hodgkins Disease. And now someone has to make it clear to those beautiful four year old girls Ruthie and Sam that he will never come home again. Patrick passed knowing that Lenka was there with him at the end and that she loved him completely. If there is a way for him to watch over Lenka, Ruthie, and Sam, he will do so. Of that, I am confident.

Patrick and his father, 1950
Patrick and his father, 1950

I only wish that I had been a better friend to him. I will always carry the memory of the lonely boy in the large yard. If I had made time on our trips to Europe to see him with his family in the town of Caslav as he had asked so many times, maybe I would remember the smiling, happy Patrick instead. That is a regret, but the worst of it is that if I see Lenka and the girls in the future, all I will remember is that I saw them after the loss of Patrick. I will not remember them smiling, secure in Patrick’s loving arms.

That last letter from Patrick was followed with a coda that read “The last message got sent before it was finished. So I began the second half. And it got cancelled! But I’m so tired, so I’ll sign off. To be continued!”

PJ and I will light candles in France for you, Patrick. For you, Lenka, Ruthie, and Sam. We might even light one for Essay. Selah.

James Patrick Cunningham (1949-2013)
James Patrick Cunningham (1949-2013)

48 thoughts on “Patrick’s Passing (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. Dennis – I am so very sorry to hear that Patrick has passed away. Thank you for sharing his story (your stories) with us.

    1. Thanks, John Paul. I just got an odd email from a friend who follows Via Lucis very closely. He gently chided me, suggesting that perhaps such things should not be on a blog about Romanesque and Gothic churches. I’m still working through this, but I don’t think that he understands that this work is for PJ and myself a part of our deepest beings. How can we not express other things that move us?

  2. Dennis, your sorrow for the loss of Patrick makes my heart hurt. I remember Patrick at UCSB when I was there. We’d sit and chat, but I always felt awkward around him, like I didn’t fully understand him. He was too deep for me. You speak of not being a good friend to him, but perhaps you were the kind of friend he needed? Always responsive, a bit apart, as he himself was. He kept coming back to you. He kept reaching out to you. That indicates friendship. Perhaps what you offered was enough, and plenty. Rest in Peace, Patrick.

  3. My sympathies for your loss and for Patrick’s family. I think your regrets about your closeness are natural but I think its energy mis-spent. I think his communications to you show that you were exactly the friend he needed. Instead, I would rejoice that he found love and family. After all, what is more important in a life? Again, so sorry for Patrick’s passing.

  4. I am so sorry to hear of your loss, your tribute to your friend is beautiful and touching, I hope that someone will write such kinds words on my passing. In my heart I feel that Patrick would not want you to have regrets. I will echo what was said above, “he kept coming back to you” which tell us that the friendship you offerred was vauled by him.
    take care.

  5. What a sad, but beautiful message. It is hard to lose a friend. Of my husband’s group of close friends who went all the way through school together and remained close for over seventy years, only two are left. Sadly, he is not one of the two, but how wonderful it was through the years to watch their lifelong friendship.

  6. What an heart-breaking yet uplifting story.
    There have been a great many passings just lately: the elderly succumbing to the cold. We try not to think of the web of loss and pain each is the centre of.
    But for Patrick to find such joy after so long! How wonderful. That is the thing, the one that lives on.

    Bless you

    1. Michael, the picture of Patrick with Lenka says it all. And you are right about how we ignore the webs of loss and pain that accompany all these passings. Thanks for reminding me of our common humanity.

  7. Such a lovely tribute to your friend. I’m sorry for your loss, Dennis. Having just lost my friend Michael last month, I understand well the depth of your grief. You did him an honor by sharing a bit of his life with your readers. Thanks for that. D

    1. Doug, thank you. I remember your post on Michael, especially because of the reference to Étienne La Boétie. I think of Montaigne’s quote every time PJ and I pass La Boétie’s house in Sarlat. You also have a post about your father being led out of danger in the Battle of the Bulge that expresses some of the same feelings.

      Incidentally, I love your description of a tourist: “the tourist doesn’t drink the opium.”

  8. What a wonderful tribute. By reading your story I feel as if I also shared parts of Patrick’s life experiences. When I opened up my web browser today, I knew nothing of this man or his way through his life. Your tribute has changed that for me and all who read your post. I am sure his daughters, when they are older, will cherish the tribute you just provided to their father. He may have lived much of his life in “exile” but his joy in family was very clear in the end. Again, a wonderful tribute! Raise a glass to your friend… pour one for him as well!

    1. PJ and I will raise a glass to Patrick and Lenka. Thank you for this sincere response; I’m glad that you have a sense of Patrick and appreciate the wonderful turn his life took at a time when so many others give up.

  9. Thank you Dennis for this wonderful tribute to our dear friend Patrick. Sophie and I are sitting here crying as we read your words. I guess we both knew he wouldn’t survive this ordeal, but deep down we hoped and prayed that he would. To leave now when his lovely girls are so young and needed him so much is just not fair. His passing reminds us we are all living on borrowed time and we must be thankful for our family and friends every day. We miss you and hope to meet PJ sometime in the future. Thank you for being in our lives!! You always have a place to stay if you ever are in the Bay Area!!

    1. Bernie, thanks to you and Sophie. John Jostes is trying to put something together in April, and PJ and I will do everything we can to be there. One more thing to thank Patrick for.

  10. Well said Denny. I’m glad that Patrick found the happiness he enjoyed these last few years. It’s tragic that his joy was cut so short. But he lived, and loved, and was fulfilled. His lesson to all of us is to do the same . Hope to see you this Spring.

  11. Thank you Dennis for your words. I too am weeping. Patrick was a long term, close, but far off friend who often called from long distances just to say hello. I look forward to our Beta Chi gathering this year. I’ll bring the wine for the toasts. Antonio

    1. Antonio, his loss made me think of those good friends from those years. I sent you a private message about this that expresses my feelings. I too look forward to April and will gladly raise a glass of any Companeros wine. Merci, cher ami.

  12. Losing a friend is bad enough, but feeling regret makes the grieving harder. I wish you strength to bear the loss and find a way to help Lenka and the children through their saddest time.

  13. Thank you for sharing your grief with us in this beautiful and important memorial. He has passed now, like the time that produced the beautiful cathedrals that you and PJ capture in your images. Yet, like the cathedrals and churches, he remains alive in your heart and mind. Be gentle with yourself.
    The happiness and significance of his later years, when he crafted a family with his wife and daughters, is as eternal as the happiness of the unknown medieval craftsman who looked upon his work and was silently satisfied knowing that he had accomplished something very important. Patrick lives on, in the love and memories of his wife and daughters.
    I am very sorry for your loss. He is in my prayers.

  14. Beautifully felt and written, Dennis. Patrick would have surely appreciated the sentiment and insights you expressed, and we doubt he would have taken issue with anything you said. Patrick spent nine days with us back in early 2007 on his last visit (I think) to Santa Barbara. He spoke a bit of some of the isolation he had felt in his life, a loneliness that Lenka’s presence seemed to greatly ameliorate. And over the years he seemed to find joy and a kind of redemption in his love for her and the girls. It was a long and sometimes lonely journey for him, but he finally seemed to find a home. In that we can all take some joy at this time of sorrow for you and all of us who cared about him.

    1. Dick and Carolyn, thanks. I didn’t know Patrick spent nine days with you in 2007. He and I often talked about his isolation after he found Lenka, but never before. He certainly found his redemption and that allowed him to talk about it. We talked also that we both found love in 2006, at the same age. We were both lucky.

  15. Dennis, your tribute to Patrick has been in my heart and on my mind today. Your beautiful words made me feel like I’ve met Patrick for a moment. Thank you for sharing. I hope that your fond memories are stronger than any regrets.

    1. Therese, so wonderful to hear from you, glad that you “met” Patrick. To tell you the truth, my regrets already start to fade as I think more on Lenka and the girls. Thanks for writing; I smile to think about you.

  16. Dennis, Thanks for your thoughts for Patrick and his recent life journey with Lenka and the girls. I did not know or appreciate the lonely years before this. It was great hearing from Patrick several times the past few years. He wa so upbeat. I was looking forward to visiting him in Czech Republic in a couple of years as I explore my Grandpa Masik’s birthplace there. Hard to believe he is gone. He is missed. I will keep him Patrick in my prayers.

    Hope to get to see some BX folk this spring. Keep me informed of planned gatherings. Bob Masik

    1. Bob, nice to hear from you. Patrick was certainly upbeat after he found Lenka and they had the girls. I’m sorry you missed him, as I did when I was in Europe. Take care, hope to see you in April!

  17. Dennis,
    Patrick and I were old friends going back to the 80’s here in Santa Barbara when we both had puppies from the same litter Mom, a golden retriever named Ready from Summerland. His oup was named Sweet Pea and mine was Bosco. We would get together occasionally to walk the sisters and every year we would have a birthday party for them with a can of wet dog food and a candle for each. Much later we would email every now and then, not often, but my most recent email just happened to be the day before his passing when I wrote to tell of good friend’s passing, Robert who was a very close friend of his. Patrick wrote back from the hospital moments before heading off to a Cat Scan as preparation for his upcoming surgery to correct–“unjam” his artificial heart valve. Of course in typical Patrick fashion he downplayed the importance of his situation to go on to tell me how Lenka had just gotten him a new Golden puppy and that he’d just been thinking of me because of this. Also he mentioned that indeed he was aware of Robert’s recent passing as he he’d had a quick note from Robert in Dallas just an hour or two before his passed. I wrote him back wishing him all my very best and for a speedy recovery in short thankful that I did so right away. I hope he received my thoughts of well wishes.
    Patrick invited me and my better half to come and visit a number of times, I sensed that he had found his full happiness in life with his lovely wife Lenka and his adorable twins that he was so proud of. I send all my heartfelt sorrow to them and you as I share some sort of a common thread with you I believe with Patrick. Patrick was always a happy and very good friend and I know he meant a great deal to many, many people in the way he shared that unique persona and love he always emanated from his heart. Sorry it took me so long to find this and write.
    Gary Simpson
    Santa Barbara, California

    1. Gary, thanks so much for this remembrance of Patrick. I wrote Lenka last week to see how she and the girls were but have not heard back. I’ll write again to tell her of your letter.

  18. I am so grateful for your comments about James Patrick Cunningham. I am in contact with a person in the Czech Republic who knew him and his wife as well. I am acting as an intermediary between the person in the Czech Republic and Patrick,s brother Bob. I have sent the link to this article to Bob so he can see it as well.

    1. Gregory, so nice to hear from you. I knew Patrick since 1967 and counted him as a friend for many years. I have not heard from Lenka in some time, hope that I have not lost touch with her. Would appreciate you passing my greetings to Lenka and the girls.

    2. While your letter was written so long ago it almost seems like yesterday I was emailing Patrick who told me he was just about to go into surgery for a heart procedure. We were both proud parents in the 80’s of pups from the same litter. His was sweet, adorable Sweetpea and mine was Bosco. We’d get together occasionally as very proud owners of the best dogs ever, but would make a point of celebrating their birthdays by spoiling them with wet dog food cakes with candles. Patrick was to me always so profound, brilliant and above all kind with never an unkind word about anyone or anything. I too had been invited a number of times to go see him, his wife Lenka he adored and his new twins he was crazy about. Man….I wish I could’ve seen that beard too. Wow!
      Anyway, what a great man. It doesn’t seem odd that here I am inexorably writing about Patrick’s passing years (?) later, but this is pretty much how Patrick was in my life weaving in and out here and there.

      My warmest wishes to his wife and girls,

      Gary Simpson from Santa Barbara

      1. Patrick weaving in and out of your life … I know exactly what you feel. BTW, at the exact moment that you were writing this, I was reading your May 20, 2013 letter on the blog. Thanks to Gregory Smoyer for making all of these exchanges possible.

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