The author lives in Goleta.
My friend is dying from ALS. He is only 68 years old. I recently attended a celebration of his life that he threw for himself, just so that he could enjoy all the love that seems mostly reserved for the memorial service. That is the kind of guy my friend is. His party was so packed that the large venue in which it was held barely held the throng of guests. A lot of people love that guy.
When I say “a lot of people,” I really mean a lot of different kinds of people. Nowadays, we all seem separated into our little isolated ideological camps, but this party brought together one of the most disparate gatherings of people that I have encountered in many years.
You see, he was a Roman Catholic (maybe lapsed), a college crew rower, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, a motorcyclist, a Heritage cattle rancher, an endurance horse racer, an off-road jeep enthusiast, an air quality management bureaucrat, a lover of beautiful, strong-willed women, a father of successful, independently minded children, and a deeply read philosopher trained to think by Jesuits at Loyola. The attendees at his party included representatives from all these interests in his life and more.
I have known him for only 15 years, give or take a couple of years. Yet when we first met, I was quickly drawn to his robust and handsome physicality, his quick wit and humor, his modest yet keen intelligence, and the fact that he befriended me without reservation or delay, and mentored me in the ways of a new environment. During our professional association, he supported me with a loyalty uncommon among bureaucrats and always, as they say, had my back.
It was heart-rending and life-affirming to attend this celebration of his life while he was there, still alive, to accept our love for him. When he first saw me at the party, he put his arm around me, moved close to my ear and said in his ALS-halted whisper, “God bless you, Terry,” at once acknowledging that he recognized me and expressing his characteristic modesty. It was not “Thanks for coming to this party.” Rather, it was “Bless you for being who you are.” He is that kind of guy.
One of the things (among many) that struck me about this party was the vast disparity between the guests. There were current and retired government bureaucrats, ranchers, horse-riding enthusiasts, motorcycle enthusiasts, off-road vehicle enthusiasts, old college rowing crewmates and fraternity brothers, retired and active-duty Marines, the religious and the non-religious, hippies and rednecks, and just friends with whom he had gathered eggs from heritage chickens and slaughtered heritage beef and goats, and split wood.
There were Republicans and Democrats and independents (and, I imagine, a few white supremacist nationalists, socialists and communists). Yet politics never came up in conversation. We all socialized and communed in an environment dedicated to celebrating the life of a man we all love. Even despite the abuse of the open bar — which I am sure, at my friend’s direction, poured deep hard liquor drinks into ice-filled red cups (a sure recipe for teasing out our political differences) — there was not so much as an inkling of political talk at this gathering. Our focus was celebrating the man we all love, a man who will soon no longer be with us, and who we all will miss when he is gone. In such a setting, politics is petty and even silly.
Is this then the hope for the unity of our nation? If we can rise above our political and social and religious differences during an evening of celebrating our love for a mutual friend, can we then also rise above our petty and silly political differences to unite about all the things that we all love commonly? Must it always take the sadness of loss to bring us together, or are we able to channel the love of those close to us into comity with those who share the love of life? Which is everyone.
I was worried that once I was sober in the light of the next morning and separated from the emotion of seeing my friend ravaged by ALS, in contrast against the memories of our friendship and his former robust embrace of life, that I would lose my sense of common good will with all the different people with whom I shared that evening. But that has not happened. Instead, I am more convinced than ever that we can find common ground despite our political, social and religious differences. We do not have to convince each other that one way is the correct way of thinking. We only have to discover that which we all love and cherish in common.
Call me a dreamer, but I believe that is the key to unity.