My friend, David Holbrook, died yesterday of lung cancer. I don’t think he had celebrated his 70th birthday yet.
We’ve been friends since 1992. I met him shortly after I moved into Hamilton House, in Charlotte, NC. One of the residents, Maude, was trying to coax her cat out of the tree next to her garden apartment. She lived right in front of the pool and since I’d started swimming after work every day we’d become friends as well. I offered to climb up after the cat simply because Maude was so upset about him.
“He doesn’t know how to get down, Kathy. He’s done this before. He gets confused and can’t back down.”
I had a cat and I knew it usually made more sense to let them figure things out on their own. Maude stood under the tree, wringing her hands and shifting her feet. She was 78 years old and well known to everyone in the complex, I knew she wasn’t neurotic. Obviously her cat had a problem.
“I’ll climb up and get him, Maude, it’s OK.” I smiled and grabbed onto the lower branches of the Maple. The branches were sturdy enough to hold me, and I was wearing overalls and tennis shoes, perfect climbing gear. Tomas, her cat, mewed mournfully as I came closer. He was crouched on a branch further out than I could comfortably reach.
“Come on, Tomas, don’t you want to come down and get some nice supper?” I crooned and inched my way out onto the branch, which sagged under my 93 pounds.
“Hell, I’ll get him down,” a laughing voice boomed underneath me. I looked down and there was a mature man holding a plastic glass filled with ice and amber liquid.
“Kathy, David’s trying to piss me off. Don’t listen to him,” Maude snapped, her hands clenched in front of her.
Holbrook reached down and picked up some pebbles.
“Here, just let me toss some of these…” he pulled his hand back, grinning.
“You better knock that shit off!” I barked, outraged that someone would throw rocks at a cat already in distress.
I reached out, slid my hand around Tomas, and gently tugged him away from the branch. Once he was close enough, I lay on the branch for balance and gathered him into my arms. I stroked him for moment, crooning to help him calm down. I managed to back down the branches, one arm curled around Tomas, the other hand holding on as I made my way down. I handed Tomas off to Maude and dropped the last couple of feet. Maude took him and kissed him, then snapped, “Tomas, you’re not worth this much trouble!”
“Never met a cat that was, “Holbrook said gaily, taking a sip of his drink.
“Nobody asked you, did they?” I said nastily. He looked at me steadily then and said quietly, “I’m David Holbrook, and you sure are a cute little thing. Is rescuing cats your specialty?” He held out the hand not holding the drink and I shook it, “Kathy Troutman. I just moved in. Would you really have thrown rocks at that cat?”
“Hell no, Maude would cut my balls off!” We all laughed and I immediately liked him. We spent the evening sitting out at the pool, eventually being joined by a dozen or so other residents. David and Maude entertained everyone with hilarious stories of Hamilton House over the 20 or so years they bad lived there. Maude and David were both retired, but there was nothing retiring in the way they laughed and told stories.
After that, anytime I was down at the pool, David, or Holbrook as I learned to call him, would keep me company. He knew everyone, as did Maude, and before long I did too. I felt comfortable for the first time in a long time and Holbrook became my friend. He complimented me all the time, but never in a way that made me uncomfortable. He was honest, honest in a way that I could never find fault with, and I think that’s why his compliments were something I valued. When Holbrook said, “Troutman, you are the cutest thing!” I felt pretty, simple as that. He never made advances, never said anything inappropriate, never said, or did, anything to make me distrust him. I felt competely at ease with him.
Once, a friend and I came back from shopping one Saturday afternoon. She lived by the pool, on the other side from Maude. We were walking with shopping bags-most of which were hers-when Holbrook, along with several other guys called out loudly, holding up plastic cups and beer cans.
“Hey, Troutman, where you been? Come keep us company!”
My friend and I walked into the pool area and chatted for a minute before one of the men with Holbrook, a golfing buddy who usually showed up on Saturday, asked ,”So what’s in the bag?”
My friend said coolly, “New underwear. We spent the morning at Victoria’s Secret.” They all gasped and elbowed each other, one asking,”So, do we get to see?” She opened the bag and pulled out a scrap of red silk before dropping it quickly back in the bag, grinning. Most of the guys were groaning, grabbing their chests, pretending to have heart attacks. I brushed her arm and said, “Let’s go, I’m ready to change and hit the pool. See you guys in a bit.” I smiled and turned away. Holbrook called, “Hey, Troutman, you got new underwear in your bag?”
I turned and said quietly, “I don’t wear any.”
We walked away to complete silence. Just as we walked in her door, I heard a soft “Goddamn.”
My friend shut the door and burst out laughing. After that, they watched me a lot, but none of them ever brought that up again- except Holbrook, who liked to say, “Troutman has got a way of shutting down guys who get too nosy.”
Over the years, we talked about everything. Holbrook told me stories about his inglorious past-his words-and more than once I said: You’re kidding! Weren’t you scared of being caught?” I’m not going to give out details, just know that Holbrook lived his life the way he wanted and never apologized. He also never intentionally hurt anyone; never lied, never manipulated…he told me he was the best boyfriend a girl could have, and the worst husband. He married, had two beautiful children. When his marriage ended-and he took complete blame for it-he swore he’d never marry again. He didn’t. His children, on the other hand, he never tired of talking about.
“I don’t know how I did it, Troutman,” he told me more than once, “I have two of the best children a man could ask for. They love me. I don’t know why, I can’t have been the best father, but they do and I think my life has been changed. I am a better man than I would have been without them.”
Then we’d go off on his conviction that marriage was not something he could ever do again.I’d shake my head and laugh “Holbrook, you’ve lived with several women. That’s the same thing, just without paperwork!”
“ You can say that if you want. I know it was different for me. I didn’t cheat on them because I loved them, not because I had a piece of paper that said I couldn’t.”
I realized then that was the big thing for Holbrook; his freedom. He did the things he did because he wanted to, not because he felt he had no choice. If he loved someone, and Holbrook had loved many women, then he wasn’t interested in anyone else. He knew when the relationship had run its course, and he thought to himself every time, “Thank goodness we’re not married.”
You can argue the marriage question all day long and it doesn’t matter whom, if anyone, is right. Holbrook felt as strongly about never getting married again as some people feel about marriage being the only moral lifestyle. To me, it didn’t matter. I did not intend to ever remarry, but I didn’t realize that I still had the ability to love the wrong person.
And I did. Love the wrong person, anyway. Holbrook stayed my friend through a 7-year relationship that ended in me being completely insane. He listened to my late night calls, crying over what I thought I’d had, what I knew would never be. He listened and he said the man in question was an idiot. It was the balm I needed. It only helped a little, but it helped. We even tried to be couple for a while, but I realized that I was still too damaged. I told him our friendship meant more to me than anything. We went back to being best friends. He is the only man I have ever been able to remain friends with after we stepped over the intimacy line. And that’s because Holbrook was Holbrook. He was honest, as I’ve said. His honesty made it possible for both of us to talk about everything and anything, without fear of reprisal. He didn’t hold grudges, he didn’t add up slights, expecting to be repaid later. He took life day to day and expected what I could give, no more. The only real regret I have is that I couldn’t have been sane, couldn’t have appreciated what he offered. I did appreciate the friendship, which I had little enough of in my life. And I knew even if he pissed me off about something, he’d be OK the next time I called.
We spoke every week. Sometimes, he fussed when I hadn’t called him. He worried that living in the mountains had resulted in me becoming bear food. I loved to hike in the woods and he always told me to take care, carry a gun, when I went into the woods. He enjoyed my stories about my art, my hikes, but he always reminded that I was alone and should take extra care. I didn’t, of course, and he’d shake his head, expecting nothing less from me. He worried about me, and accepted that I, like he, would do what I wanted. We accepted that about each other.
When he told me about the cancer, I knew there was little time. I rode the bus from Asheville because my car was still in the shop. It made for an interesting trip, actually, and gave me lots of time to think. He cried when he saw me, the only time I’ve ever seen my friend Holbrook cry. He didn’t want me to see him that way, he said. I’ve heard that from patients who realize their time is near. They are afraid their family and friends will remember them as helpless and sick. I assured Holbrook that I would always remember him as a pistol, sitting by the pool with a drink in his hand and a smile on his face. He told me I was his best friend. I told him he was mine. He said he was afraid he’d never see me again.
I held him and thought of the very, very few people who could have said that to me. In the years I’ve known him, we’ve shared every thought, evey fear, every frustration and every hope. My only regret is that I couldn’t love him the way he deserved. And he told me that, in fact, I had. My friendship had been important to him and it had been something he could always count on.
The last time I visited him, I bathed his feet, cut his toenails, and massaged warm baby oil into his skin. He laughed with his son about how good it felt. I massaged his feet until he asked for his medication and was dropping off to sleep. I didn’t want him to be awake when I left, and I wanted his last memory of me to be something filled with pleasure. He died two days later.
I loved him in a way I find difficult to describe. His girlfriend had nothing to fear; I wasn’t interested in taking him from her. I realized our friendship meant more to me than having the security of a boyfriend, someone to take me places and buy me dinner. Holbrook reminded me that I was a woman, that I had been special once, that I was smart, and that he valued everything about me. He gave me something none of the men in my life ever had. Honesty and acceptance. He accepted me the way I was and thought more of me for insisting on remaining who I was. I accepted him the same way. I don’t know any other way to put it. I loved him, and he loved me. I will miss him terribly.