Over the last few months, I’ve been able to spend time with a lot of old friends. It started over the summer, when about 35 of us from college, mutually stunned by turning 60 or the prospect of it, organized an informal reunion. There have been meals and overnights with college roommates, law school classmates, former co-clerks, a fellow summer camper, a friend from junior high school, and people from different stages.
I was starting to feel a little weird about it. It was a joy to see each one, but I wondered if I was retreating into the past. I’m between writing projects now, with proposals in front of my publisher but not yet resolved, so it felt like I might be postponing my life, distracting myself with the company of these great people.
But there was another level of discomfort. Each encounter would trigger a round of recollection and reverie. Was I living with ghosts, on some sort of lame, extremely small-scale farewell tour? A writer spends too much time in his own head. I know that. Was I overdoing it? Shouldn’t I get on with the business of living?
Yesterday, Thanksgiving, I received a miserable answer. Chris Ma died, evidently of a heart attack, way too soon. We had a peculiar bond. We both dropped out of the same graduate program together — the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. We were both sure of our decisions; we both were a bit arrogant, I suppose, in making those decisions. We each ended up in D.C. after law school and picked up our friendship again.
I practiced law; he worked at the FCC, then wrote for magazines, then edited U.S. News and World Report. We each changed course after a while. About fifteen years ago, he took several months to re-think what he was doing. His wife, Nathalie, was funny about it. “I married him for better or worse,” she said once, “but not for lunch.”
Chris ended up at the Washington Post, now on the business side. He dreamed up new ways for media businesses to reach their audience. He looked into the future and tried to strengthen, or build anew, the connections among people in a world that seems increasingly atomized. About ten years ago, I started to write books.
Our kids were in different school systems. Our wives were in different worlds, too. But those are all such poor reasons for losing touch. Whenever I saw him — every few years, at best — he was always the same: gentle, interesting, interested, his face screwing up as he posed a question about some difficult problem he was thinking about, or pointed out some inexplicable irrationality in modern life. I was always glad to see him, but still the distance grew. I don’t even know if the heart attack that killed him was part of long-term troubles, or something unforgivable that came out of the blue.
I can’t repair that sadness. But I know I will keep tracking down these people from my past. It’s so much worse not to.
So long, Chris.