My friend Marshall died yesterday morning. He was the first close friend I made when I moved to Seattle in 1985. We had been friends for 27 years.
I will never forget the day we met, leaning against the wall in the basement of Savery Hall at the University of Washington, where we were both first year Sociology Ph.D. graduate students.
“Who wants to pair up and be in a statistics study group?” someone asked.
“Me, me,” I moaned. “I hate statistics.”
“Me too,” said a soft voice beside me. I really need help.”
There stood Marshall, barely my height (and I’m only 5’5”), neatly dressed in his pressed shirt and jeans, petite but perfectly proportioned, like you took the classic hunk and just shrunk him.
It turned out we lived nearby each other, so we teamed up, especially after I told him my live-in boyfriend was an electrical engineer, a quantitative sort of guy who would probably be willing to help us.
Let’s just say that where that statistics course was concerned, neither of us did very well. But our friendship scored top marks.
I enjoyed Marshall’s laugh and his dry wit which belied his soft-spoken voice. I respected his integrity. He was exceedingly generous with his time and energy where his friends were concerned. We both shared a love of gardening, art and our beloved cats. He was always the consummate host and a gentleman, in every sense of the word.
Marshall could also be a perfectionist, fussy about details and life. I remember each of the places where he lived, never a speck of dust, always decorated to a tee, yet never over-the-top, just like Marshall.
Later, during our first year of grad school, I learned that Marshall—who was gay—had HIV. In those days, the early-mid 1980s, HIV was a death sentence. Few survived. But Marshall was one of them.
We both left grad school with a master’s degree but without a Ph.D., and went on to do other things, many other things. And our friendship continued, stronger than ever.
A few years later Marshall started to lose weight (and he never had much to lose to begin with) and his health began to falter, so he decided to leave rainy Seattle and move to Hawaii. I wanted him to have the best chance he could at being well, but I was sad that he would no longer live five minutes away.
Marshall stayed in Hawaii a few years, then he moved to San Diego and finally to San Francisco. His health seemed to stabilize. We kept in touch, and no matter how much time passed, whenever we spoke on the phone, it always felt comfortable, like we picked up wherever we left off.
As time went by, I think I took it for granted that he would overcome whatever challenges life threw his way because he always did. So when I found out he had another disease, one where the outcomes were bad, especially when matched with HIV, I don’t think I gave it the credence it deserved. Marshall had gone back to school, had started a new career as a therapist and, recently, got a dog.
When he called and told me he was really struggling and was going to move again, this time to southern California, to be closer to where his sister lived, that he might need a liver transplant, that medications taken over the course of many years, had taken their toll, it was hard to hear. I don’t think I really wanted to accept what it meant, that my friend might not be around “forever.” In fact, he might not be around long at all.
I didn’t want to acknowledge the odds–which had never been in his favor–from the time we became friends and he first got sick, until now. He wasn’t a statistic; he was my friend. Our friendship had survived moves, the death of partners, family and friends, jobs that disappeared, new careers, relationships that tanked, illness, surgery…you name it.
The world is a little emptier for me today. I will miss him.
Friends come and go and friendships, like the friendship I had with Marshall, are rare. In that regard, we defied the odds.