Entry 562: The First to Go

I’ve done over 560 posts for this blog, and this one took me the longest to write. I did draft after draft, trying to get it just right, and I’m pretty sure I still haven’t. But I’m also pretty sure I just have to get it out or go a little crazy.

There were eight of us, you see. We’d been friends for about 30 years, most brought together when our children were babies.

We had a poker game all those years; I’ve mentioned it in this blog once or twice. Every other Thursday for about three decades. That’s 780 poker nights, more or less. Dealer’s choice. I believe we were playing hold ‘em when our kids got bar mitzvahed. Stud when they graduated high school. At one point, probably while we were playing some weird game with changing wild cards, we looked up and all our kids were adults with jobs, and in some cases spouses, and in some cases kids of their own.

Thirty years is a long time.

Amazingly, the eight of us and our wives stayed together all those years. Most of us moved at least once, but none of us moved away. None of us even got divorced. As a group, we defied all the statistics.

Except one.

Statistically, one of our eight would die before the age of 60. And now one of us has.

He was the youngest of us. The one who was in the best shape. The one who was most full of life.

His name was Gary. I’ve often mentioned him in this blog (here’s a post that includes Gary and the poker guys and a testicle-eating fish). Gary was our ringleader, the hub of our activities, our example of how to live. In addition to being my friend, he was also my brother-in-law. He was the embodiment of what friends and family should be. Of what a person should be.

The poker guys circa 2000. That's Gary, third from the left, with the biggest smile.

The poker guys circa 2000. That’s Gary, third from the left, with the biggest smile.

And now he has inexplicably folded his hand.

We never thought Gary would be the first to go. And when he did go, it would be because his zip line snapped, or the fishing boat capsized, or there was some accident involving power tools. It wouldn’t be Gary who just didn’t wake up one morning.

But it was.

There is so much to say to Karen, Gary’s wife and my wife’s sister. So much to say to his sons, Evan and Jason. So much to say that will do so little good. So I’m not going to say any of it in this post. This is my blog, so I get to be a little selfish and talk about me.

And the guys of the poker game.

We all held responsible jobs, raised good kids. But for the most part, we’d also managed to remain immature. We went to rock n’ roll concerts, albeit mostly with performers who were older than we were. We took crazy road trips, albeit often in limos so we could drink safely. And we’d kept at our vices, although the cheaper indiscretions of youth had been replaced by fine cigars and single malt scotch. Two bottles at each card game. That’s, um, 1,560 bottles of scotch.

More or less.

Circa 2007.

Circa 2007.

We were still young. Sixty is the new forty and all that. We figured we had a ways to go yet. We figured we’d start getting stuff first, illnesses and injuries and maladies that would warn of our decline. But there was no warning here. We were blind-sided by death; sudden, shocking, profoundly sad death.

Slapped in the face with our own mortality.

There was a memorial service at the golf club, which is where Gary would have wanted it to be, at least if it couldn’t be at Citifield. Then there was a private viewing at the funeral home, family only, and so I was the last of the guys to see Gary. In the coffin was his fishing rod, a golf club, a Mets jersey, a wrench and other accouterments of a life fully lived and fully enjoyed. People who view bodies in funeral homes always talk about how peaceful they look. Gary did not look peaceful. Gary looked like he was itching to get out of that damned box and do something. Gary was never idle for very long.

I said goodbye on behalf of the guys. I told him we’d continue dealing his favorite games. I told him how much he meant to us, to me. I don’t know if I said these things out loud. But I thought them.

2114, at my daughter's wedding.

2014, at my daughter’s wedding.

When someone dies, so does a little bit of everyone who loved them. We speak about moving on. We say, “Oh, Gary would have wanted us to do this or that.” But the truth is, Gary would have wanted to do this or that himself, because Gary wanted to do and try and experience everything. And he wanted to take everyone he loved along for the ride.

Yes, we will move on. Of course we will. There will be laughs at the poker game again, too. But it will feel as if we’re playing seven-card stud with four hearts showing and absolutely nothing in the hole and we’re trying to bluff our way through. Everything has changed. Not only because there will forever be something missing from our game and from our lives. But because there are now seven guys who have been friends for 30 years who have been abruptly and horribly reminded that they will not live forever.

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9 Responses to Entry 562: The First to Go

  1. Jamie Raboy says:


  2. Vinny says:

    Beautiful memorial for your friend and poker buddy and brother-in-law

    I have had to help bury a couple of fraternity brothers the last few years and I’m two words IT SUCKS

  3. Jeff says:

    A beautiful and heartfelt tribute to our friend. Everything will be less fun without Gary. Thanks Mark.

    Jeff (one of the remaining seven)

  4. Jeff says:

    A beautiful and heartfelt tribute to our friend. Everything will be less fun without Gary. Well done Mark.

    JBG (one of the remaining seven)

  5. Mark,

    No one could have written a more beautiful tribute to Gary than you. He was an incredible man, and I will never forget him in the Saab convertible (I think that’s right – I was young and stupid!), pulling up at Downingwood and all of us being excited that the party had just arrived. I will always remember the fish tanks, the way he made things happen out of nowhere, and all of the times he crazily let us “rule the roost” at Agnes Circle when they were out of town. I have it on good authority that you respect the fact that with me, people always know where they stand… Gary will always stand a world apart for me, the pinnacle of hard work and family first, and someone who will I will continue to strive to emulate. All of my thoughts and prayers are with the Glass/Hallen/Tamarkin families now, from the other side of the country… And yes, I love you, too.


  6. Janice says:

    So beautifully written Mark. I have been thinking about Karen, the boys, Barbara, you and Casey all week. No words to help this tragic loss. Life doesn’t play fair.

  7. Lois Raben says:

    Absolutely beautiful. I was married to Gary’s uncle Richard….Cooky’s brother.. and spent fabulous times with that family for many years. I’m heartbroken for all of you.

  8. gwenn dellapelle says:

    I miss him so much already. 😦

  9. Nancy Landis says:

    I am a friend of Cooky’s and Susie’s and I am writing this with tears in my eyes. This is a beautiful tribute to an amazing man. Many hugs to all who loved him.

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