A week ago today, I learned of the death of a dear friend named Gene Conley. We had been friends for nearly a decade, and saw each other mostly when we fished.
As we age, this type of news becomes more and more common, but never is it greeted with any less sorrow. In this case, the knowledge that one of my favorite fishing buddies had passed hit me like a punch in the gut. It was a full fifteen minutes before it finally sank in that no longer would I hear from the one who always called me “Amigo,” and whose frequent emails went something like this: “Fishing the Green River tomorrow at nine. You in?” That was Gene: concise and to the point.
If I were not such a creature of habit—I check my emails a half dozen times a day—I might never have learned of Gene’s passing. The email address was his, but the subject referred to his girlfriend, and included the words “Sad news.” I immediately thought that it was about Mené. The message was from her daughter, but did it mean that her mother had died? I quickly scanned the email, and my eyes caught the name Gene. Gene? Gene? What? Oh my God. It was a right hook, and it landed squarely in my stomach. All the air went out of me. Gene’s dead? It couldn’t be. But it was. I began to cry. What happened? The last time I had seen him, he was fine. He’d just turned 75. Okay, somewhat old, we had both admitted, but certainly not in any danger of . . .
Gene was dead. There was no doubt about the gravity of the message. He had gone in for routine arthroscopic shoulder surgery, and had died of complications shortly after. No ifs, ands, or buts. The service would be the following Tuesday. But I couldn’t go. Not because I didn’t want to. Heavens no. I wanted to go more than anything in the world, not only to pay my respects to a Vietnam veteran, but to say farewell to my good friend. But I was sick—literally. I was sick as a dog (still am) with a miserable cold, and running a fever. But there’s a point to all this. It was okay. Yes, it was okay because the last time we had seen each other, Gene and I had done the one thing that real men aren’t “supposed” to do. For some reason, we had each told the other that we loved him. We left the river that day with an exchange of hugs and the most important words we could have ever said to one another.
There’s a wonderful song by a local singer/songwriter named Tom Fisch. It’s called “Tell Everyone.” It’s a song I first heard when my wife, Becky, and I attended a breast cancer fundraiser at which Tom was the entertainment for the evening. The words of that song, have never had more meaning than they did on that day when I last saw Gene. Here is the refrain, which is particularly telling:
“Tell everyone you love that you love them,
Do it while you can.
Take a chance, take a stance,
Do it while you can.
Life is a short, unpredictable journey,
Today’s a gift, tomorrow’s a mystery.
I am so grateful that Gene and I left each other that day the way we did. I know he’s up there somewhere on a beautiful river, throwing the same sloppy casts he did when we fished together so many times. But the difference is that the fish will be a lot more forgiving. I’m not in a rush, but I do look forward to that day when I can join him and all the other loved ones of my life in that eternal place we lovingly call Heaven. RIP, my friend.