The telephone rang Sunday afternoon, and the caller ID said it was a cell phone in Pennsylvania. I didn't recognize the number. For just a moment, I considered not answering. I was about to leave the house and had my camera bag in hand. But I picked up the phone anyway.
"Hi, Ed, this is Patty." My heart sank. Patty is Karl's ex-wife, and the two of them are some of my oldest friends. This call would not be good news. Karl passed away on Friday after a long fight with lung disease. He was a few years older than me. He was one of those larger-than-life characters who lived to the maximum. Loudly passionate about the people and causes he cared about, Karl spoke whatever was on his mind, holding little back. We had intense arguments sometimes, but always as friends.
We first met over 40 years ago when I was a sophomore in college. Karl rode his Triumph Bonneville back and forth between Pittsburgh and Clarion in order to visit his girlfriend. The bike was a typical Triumph of the period, that is, notoriously unreliable. It had recurring electrical and ignition problems, leaving him stranded on more than one occasion. He traded it for a Ford Pinto, and we learned the intricacies of having a German-made engine in an American car, as well as a practical introduction to metric tooling.
We went camping and trout fishing. Karl moved from Pittsburgh to Grove City and eventually settled into a tiny house near Jackson Center. In the summer, we swam and fished in a pond across the road. In the winter, I went cross-country skiing through the strip mines. He met Patty and they were married in late fall. I was married too, and while we didn't get together often, we were still close friends.
In the early eighties, both my marriage and my job fell to pieces. I was emotionally and financially wrecked, less than a hundred dollars from being homeless. Karl said there was a job opening where he worked and offered me a place to stay in an unheated bedroom at his farm house. I was glad to have it. I told Patty that it was the lowest point in my life, and that she and Karl helped me get through it. That's a debt I'll never be able to repay in full.
Karl wasn't a saint. He drank and smoked to excess, both leading to health problems later in life. Even after his doctor told him to quit drinking and smoking, he continued for another two years. His lungs were ravaged and he looked far older than his years, shuffling around the house while tethered to an oxygen generator the last time I visited. Shortly later, he received a lung transplant and did better for a time, but his marriage came apart.
Patty told me that he'd spent most of the last couple of years in the hospital and a nursing home. I know he hated that. Last week he had a series of strokes. When the doctors told Patty there wasn't any hope, she and her daughter elected to turn off the respirator. Karl was gone in a few minutes.
Losing a friend hurts. We know it's inevitable, yet the emotional impact is no less painful. We think there will be another chance to talk, another opportunity to sit at the table over a meal, or just spend some time together, but that may never happen. When Karl and I last talked, we argued, and that's something I truly regret.