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.
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.
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!”