Mornings following the death of a friend re-awaken us to the loss, which goes into remission during sleep, so this morning, I was hit again by the death of Joel Siegel. He wasn’t a friend who would have come to mind that early, but a few days ago, when my husband suggested we turn an upcoming dinner date into an evening at our home, I thought of Joel. I hesitated because he’d just e-mailed and mentioned he wasn’t feeling well, but had no reason to suspect this would be the last e-mail he'd ever send me. He was responsible about updating those of us who cared (and it was a large list) about his condition, his tone relentlessly upbeat, encouraging us to feel sure we would have many more bottles of wine and laughs together.
It’s impossible to visualize Joel without Dylan, his adorable, nine-year-old son, and treasure. Joel’s perpetual smile would grow uncontainable at the mention of Dylan’s name. One New Years we invited him to a gathering. “That’s my night with Dylan,” he responded, obviously preferring that above all else, but added, “If it’s okay, we’ll stop by to say hi”. How terrible I would feel now if I’d not said he should do that. We all learned from Joel, not just which movies to avoid, but to appreciate what we’ve been given, to recognize we’re finite, to live as fully and passionately as we can and to show our love without embarrassment.
An important exercise for me that accompanies a friend’s death is assessing if I could have done better. Joel allowed me to pass the squirm test, always a relief, his final gift to me. He was open about his condition, making it easy to let him off the hook when he'd failed to show up for a dinner here and explained that he'd fallen asleep. I was delighted to write a letter of recommendation when Dylan was applying to our son's school. I called to tell him to call if he was weak and needed a ride to services or anywhere else. We forgave him (even before the lavish bouquet of flowers arrived) for giving us the wrong address for his book party, mistakenly directing us to the East Side, which had us knocking on embassy doors and asking, “Is Joel Siegel’s book party here?” I didn't do much, but he didn’t ask for much.
I originally met Joel around 1970 on a blind date, which is why I was so amused by what his friend, Roger Ebert, wrote about him. I read: “At one point he (Joel) quoted Molly Ivins on the treatment for cancer: 'First they abuse you. Then they poison you. Then they burn you. I've had worse blind dates'.” I was one of those blind dates. It was, at best, uneventful, at worst, worse.
We didn’t see each other again until the late 90’s, when Susan, the same friend who’d set us up, re-introduced us as part of a large social gathering. Joel was now married to Ena, and we got to know each other without the akwardness of a blind date. I was charmed by his enthusiasm and won over by his authenticity, inspired by his determination to stay alive. He measured his success, not by his ratings or earnings, but by how many days he’d have with Dylan. There would never have been enough, which is why he was wise enough to make those he had count.