I’ve been lucky to have many close friends. But as I look back, it’s clear to me that, of all of them, my life has been most closely intertwined with that of my friend Chris Bentley.
Chris and I were born less than two months apart, in early 1962, and we met before either of us can remember in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where our island cottages were separated by a little path between trees along the shores of Lake Huron.
During the school year, we led separate lives, he in Bucks County and I in Cincinnati. But come summers, Chris, his older brother Alden and I fished, camped, explored and drove boats with little outboard engines among the islands. On rainy days, we played cards and swapped stories. Even as a kid, Chris was well read and could spin a yarn. And from those earliest days on, he was the definition of a jolly good fellow, always jovial, ever ready with a joke or quip.
One day when we were 12 and sailing with his father, a professional sea captain, we sped past another sailboat on the same tack. As we went by, Chris sang out, “Nice day for sailing!” The seemingly innocent comment came with the unstated barb that ours was the only boat that was really sailing. We thought it was the funniest thing ever.
As the years passed, our interests grew to include girls, bonfires on deserted islands, and discussions about great writers. After college, we lived in New York City at the same time and I met his girlfriend Wendy at Chumley’s, the famous old literary speakeasy in Greenwich Village. Before long, I was a groomsman in their wedding and our wives became close friends, followed by our children, renewing a pattern started by our grandparents.
Chris and Wendy would visit us in Pittsburgh and we’d stay with them in Philadelphia, but Michigan was where we saw each other most. We picnicked with the kids, and Chris and I took them camping. When I put fishing downriggers on my rickety boat and needed help testing them in Lake Huron’s deep water, Chris came with me. When I wanted to cut the first path through deep woods on new property I’d purchased, we cut it together with chainsaws.
We certainly had our differences and, in some ways, we were opposites. Chris was meticulous and neat. He took better care of things than I did, and everything he had was in impeccable shape. He designed and tended beautiful gardens and started painting long before I did.
While I later became an eat-to-live guy who followed what Chris termed a “monastic” diet, Chris was an epicurean who loved cooking and wine and had a curator’s eye for collecting.
In recent years, he was a prolific poster on social media who became passionate about politics. And that divided us for a while, until we realized that friendship was more important.
Ultimately, I guess we were alike in the ways that really mattered — culture and family, humor, and the love of nature. And it was those things that kept us close for nearly six decades. When the chips were down, I could count on Chris for unvarnished advice and know he’d be with me regardless.
* * *
One Sunday evening in early March, the phone rang, and when I saw Chris’s name, I grabbed the phone and said, “Well, how’s everything?” He replied, “Apparently not that great. I’ve been diagnosed with leukemia.” He described the events leading to the diagnosis, and I said, “Well at least that’s one of the ones that’s treatable.” The more I read, though, the more it became clear that the odds weren’t good.
In April, we went to see him, concocting a reason why we’d be passing through Philadelphia. We kept our distance because the harsh chemo treatments had reduced his immune system to zero. He’d gone from a stocky 6’1, 230 to about 190 pounds, and his signature thick black hair was gone. We sat on the porch of their beautiful home and looked over his magnificent gardens as we talked.
As the weeks passed, the four of us spoke on the phone. In July, Chris reached remission, his voice regained its strength, and his quick wit was back. The clouds lifted and it was a great relief. But the reprieve was brief, like the eye of a hurricane, and within days it was clear that experimental treatment was his only hope.
Understandably, everyone wanted Chris to remain upbeat and keep the necessary fighting posture. I didn’t want to defy the game plan but felt a duty to converse with him about death. So on August 1, the day before the new treatments began, I decided to start emailing him every other day about what was happening in the islands, to give him something else to focus on.
At the end of my second long email, I started to touch on death, but it was already a long email, and Chris tired easily. So I’d deal with death directly in the next one, including a quote from Socrates: “To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.”
That email was never sent; Chris passed away that night. The next morning, I went down to the dock and put our flag at half-mast. When I checked the internet afterwards, I learned that half-mast should be reserved for presidents and foreign dignitaries. But I’ve never been big on rules and, to me, Chris was more important than either. As word spread the next two days, flags throughout the islands dipped in his honor.
* * *
By coincidence, a few days later we moved out of our cottage to let our daughter and friends use it, so I wrote this from the elevated porch of the cottage where Chris grew up, before he got a new house across the bay. That porch, 20 feet above the ground, is one of my favorite places, sitting on white wicker and overlooking the water. Birches and aspen frame the view on either side, their green leaves and silver undersides trembling in the August breeze. The northern summer is beautiful but brief, and soon enough, those quaking leaves would turn yellow and fly away in the face of a late October gale.
But on that August day, the wind chimes murmured gently and hummingbirds hovered at their feeders. Beyond, a parade of antique mahogany boats cruised by, on their way to the annual antique wooden boat show the next day. Those boats are prized possessions, and two years ago, Chris bought a beauty, which, in Wendy’s honor, he named “The True Love.”
The nautical progression went on and on, until the last of their deep, throaty in-board engines faded into the distance. It had been as pretty a summer afternoon as one could wish, and as the golden hour arrived, the sunset’s reddish light made all the greens more vivid. From my perch I could see over the rocky point to the mile of shimmering blue water beyond it, all the way across the far bay to the distant point where Chris’s green boathouse glowed in the fading light, at once familiar and ineffably out of reach.
In January of last year, after Chris and Wendy had visited Pittsburgh for a long weekend, I pondered friendship and how I might define it. I came up with this: A friend is someone with whom you share the adventure of being alive.
We certainly did that. One doesn’t get many lifelong friends, and I was fortunate to have Chris. I will miss many things about him, but none more than our warm greetings after long travel, pouring a big scotch and catching up by the fire.