Corky, Interrupted

Today, January 28th, would have been my friend Corky’s 65th birthday.

“Would have been,” because Corky died suddenly last year.

A few days after learning of Corky’s death last February, I wrote down some of my thoughts about him and our thirty-five-year-long friendship. Still too stunned to decide whether or not I wanted to post such private thoughts here, I decided to wait awhile before doing so (or deciding not to).

As Corky’s birthday approached again this year, I decided I would register the fact that I still mourn his loss by posting here some of those now-year-old thoughts:

A few days ago, I learned that a friend of mine had been found dead in his apartment in New York City. Known to his friends and colleagues there as George, Corky was a trauma nurse at Manhattan’s St. Luke’s Hospital. When he unexpectedly didn’t show up for work, a colleague phoned his neighbors, and they phoned the police, who found Corky’s body. From what the police told Corky’s neighbors, he apparently died after falling in the middle of the night and hitting his head or he died from “natural causes.” The following day, Corky’s colleague at work relayed the awful news to me (thank goodness for Facebook).

Apart from his career as a nurse (preceded by a ten-year stint as an English teacher), Corky was a playwright and a Constant Scribbler. Writing It Down was Corky’s way of coping with everything. I’m hoping that recording a few reactions of my own about Corky’s death will be as fitting a tribute to our long and mutually-treasured friendship as I’m likely to achieve.

My recollections these past few days are mostly happy ones. A favorite recent memory: a rainy morning a couple of years ago when Corky showed me around his neighborhood, introducing me to the guy who runs the store where he bought his groceries, walking on to the place where Corky bought his tea, then stopping in at his favorite flower shop – all the rounds of his weekly routine. That little tour was followed that afternoon (which had turned sunny and warm) by Corky’s squiring me around to each of his favorite spots in Central Park, a place he adored and visited often.

Aside from recollections of other happy mornings, afternoons, and evenings we shared, I am also acutely aware of (and profoundly grateful) for the steadfast support Corky (among others) provided me during a difficult period a few years ago when I was coping with the breakup of my longest intimate relationship. We spent quite a bit of time on the phone that particular post-breakup year.

Corky was raised in the medium-sized town of Rome, Georgia. When I met him in the mid-1970s, he’d been living for several years in Nashville, Tennessee, where he went to college and was an activist for the gay rights movement in that city. He eventually migrated toNew York City. He lived there in a series of miniscule apartments, working (always in the trauma units) in a series of Manhattan hospitals. After almost three decades of living in New York City, Corky never seemed to lose his excitement of having settled there. Apart from a couple of years when he moved to Atlanta after a devastating breakup of a relationship, he never considered moving elsewhere. During Corky’s hiatus from New York, he lived in the same apartment building in Atlanta as I did at that time, where he met and entered the affections of several other friends who also lived there then.

Those few years I knew Corky as a neighbor as well as a friend were special ones for both of us, but I also enjoyed visiting him in Manhattan once he moved back there. Corky was not only a knowledgeable and enthusiastic show-arounder (he loved the history and especially the architecture of the city), but also an extraordinarily thoughtful host. Our visits always seemed too short, despite all the adventures we managed to cram into each of them.

After years of my futilely pleading for Corky to return south for another visit here, Corky finally agreed to do that a few months before he died. After initially stipulating that his visit take place in the absolute coldest weather the south had to offer (Corky loved the winter even more than the fall), Corky ended up rescheduling that visit for March 2011 due to some unexpected and serious-sounding health problem – a problem he was characteristically vague about. (The fact that we were both so excited about his upcoming visit to Atlanta, and a few other clues gleaned from his friends in New York in our phone conversations after he died, make me believe Corky’s death was, in fact, accidental, or a result of a health crisis.)

Corky was a quirky guy, and seemed oblivious of how exasperating he could sometimes be to his friends. He was generous to a fault: he invariably gave cab drivers extravagant tips; one of his Christmas parcels (mailed out sometime in July) contained not one or two but two dozen exquisitely and differently-wrapped presents, each with its own Christmas card; he would rent limousines to ease his out-of-town visitors into Manhattan from the airport – and then treat them to expensive Broadway shows. Conscientious at work and extremely self-reliant, Corky could also be maddenly secretive and evasive. He could be stubborn and slippery when his psychological comfort level seemed threatened by even well-meaning and devoted friends. He held implacable grudges against those he (rightly or otherwise) felt betrayed by. A sensitive soul who delighted in gossip, his sense of humor was one of the most endearing features of his personality. Corky was also an enthusiastic, adventuresome cook (and sometimes mailed his long-distance friends samples of his home-made delicacies). Complicated but loveable, Corky was someone who simultaneously attracted and resisted the affection of others.

One of my strongest reactions to the news of Corky’s death is the same reaction that kept bursting forth repeatedly after the sudden death of another friend some twenty years ago: the realization – followed by temporarily forgetting, then remembering yet again – that Corky’s opportunities for experiencing the marvels and pleasures of this world have ended so prematurely and irrevocably. Corky won’t be around to see the return of spring this year – or to notice and enjoy anything else, this year or any other year. Abruptly halted now is Corky’s long and winding journey (the one we’re all on) to garner a little more clarity about what his particular journey is all about. There will be no more delightful or earnest conversations or letters or emails or phone calls about the particular things we two loved to discuss. (For example, our mutual abiding intense interest in All Things Theatre was something I shared among my circle of friends almost exclusively with Corky, and we won’t be able to share that interest any longer.)

My monkey-mind has scampered down a lot of dark tunnels this week as I’ve tried to wrap my mind around the fact of Corky’s sudden erasure from the world:

  • I’ve been struck with the heartbreaking brevity of the life of every human individual, shocked at the  sheer fragility of human consciousness, and by the surprising vibrancy, uniqueness, and persistence of personality – and how outside of our awareness these facts are to most of us most of the time.
  • I’m reminded of the absolute centrality of friendships (especially among those of us with no children) to our own feelings of well-being (when we’re lucky enough to notice and enjoy such feelings).
  • I’ve noticed the tragic mistake most of us make, over and over, in assuming there will be plenty of time to sort through with each of our dear ones any unfinished business or to clear away any remaining obstacles to intimacy within those friendships.
  • I’ve been troubled by the ancient fear of dying alone like Corky did (and countless millions of others have), with no opportunity to tell the people who you’ve loved how important that love has been, and certainly with no time to arrange for the safekeeping of whatever personal papers you might like to leave behind for others to possibly benefit by, to be consoled by, or to merely to serve as souvenirs of a life that someone lived – for however long or briefly that living lasted. 
  • It’s been disorienting, trying to accept someone’s irreversible and total extinction when, a week before, you were chuckling over that person’s latest phone message left on your answering machine, blithely (and wrongly) assuming there would be dozens more like it every year…indefinitely. It’s almost impossible to believe that someone so vivid in my imagination and important to my own journey has been totally eradicated except in a few people’s memories.
  • Corky’s death has triggered memories of previous losses and diminishments of this magnitude, and has produced the uneasiness that anticipating further inevitable losses brings to mind. 
  • Ambivent agnostic that I’ve become, I find it impossible to conceive where or how Corky “is” now, impossible to make sense of any personality evaporating so completely and suddenly and eternally into nothingness. And I’m feeling unequipped to imagine what an alternative to such nothingness might be.

Although I’m still angry and sad about the utter deletion of Corky’s unique contributions to the lives of his friends, and sharply missing, already, the commentaries on the zanynesses and glories of this world that Corky will no longer be making, I realize that I am a better and happier person for having known this man. But I suspect that I will feel the loss of him ever more deeply – rather than less deeply – as time goes on.

Last November, I traveled to New York again for the first time since Corky’s death. The local friend and co-worker who had alerted me to Corky’s death (and who I’d been in periodical touch with since) met me there, and on a perfect-weather afternoon, the gingko trees all over town ablaze, we spread Corky’s ashes in several of his favorite places in his beloved Central Park. Afterwards we walked to supper and exchanged a few more stories about our friend (“George” to her, “Corky” to me). Then she took the train back to New Jersey and I boarded my plane back to Atlanta.

Corky’s birthday having rolled around again today, I still miss my friend. He died too soon.

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4 thoughts on “Corky, Interrupted

  1. Thanks, Cal, for writing so eloquently (and accurately) about Corky. I found your page by way of trying to locate any information I could about Corky, because I had heard that he had passed away. I didn’t know when or where. We were roommates for a short time in college and he was, indeed, a unique soul. I am happy that he found quiet solitude and joy in New York City and that he is at home in Central Park. I’m not surprised that he would become a nurse because giving was his nature. I am sorry for your loss-though it was more than 5 years ago. I love the photos you posted. Again, Thank you.

  2. Wow. I’ve got a list of things to do today. Connect with friends and express my gratitude to them for the kindness, love and support they’ve provided through the years. I’ll start with you. Thank you, so very much, Cal.

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