My friend of nearly 50 years died in his sleep a couple of nights ago. Clifford Barney, whom I called Wally because he called himself Walter when we first met and hung out together at Kurt von Meier’s Napa Valley ranch in the early 70’s, was 92 years young. As ways of dying go, I think dying in your sleep sounds pretty good; life is just a dream, right?
Wally was endlessly curious, rebellious, terribly smart and always ready for a good laugh. At the Diamond Sufi ranch, he, von Meier and I would get stoned, sit around the kitchen table and entertain ourselves and each other for hours with stories and speculations, crazy ideas, outrageous meals, and repeated fits of laughter. For a while there, it felt like I was one of a special troop of cosmic Three Stooges. It was grand.
As the years passed, Wally and I always kept in touch. He and his wife Caroline moved to Yelapa, Mexico for a while, and during those periods it was harder to communicate, but they’d always return to the states, and we’d get together. Eventually they settled into a mobile home park Santa Cruz. I’d drive down and visit; Wally and I would walk on a path overlooking the Pacific, talk a blue streak, laugh and laugh and laugh. Wally and I shared the first five letters of our last names, as well as our birth date, September 11th. Just sayin’.
Beginning in my teens, I always found and hung out with older guys, really smart guys with quick wits and sharp minds like Kurt and Wally. Now that I’m in my mid-seventies, it’s harder to hang with wise guys twenty years older; they keep dying on me. Kurt von Meier was only fourteen years older than I, and when he died suddenly in 2011, I experienced the downside of paling around with older guys. Wally hung on for a lot longer, but now he too has passed on. One by one, the Cosmic Three Stooges have dropped out of the act. Now, I’m the only Stooge left, and it feels lonely.
When old pals die, the times we’ve had in common die too. I remember the times, of course, but now sharing them together is impossible. Telling others about them is entertaining, but it’s mere storytelling, not at all how it feels to share past moments together. Whole universes of shared meaning disappear when people do. If information has mass, then the universe is lessened with each death; so goes the law of entropy, I guess.
The story of aging is the story of loss, no two ways about it; family, friends and eventually everything, right down to the atoms of which we are composed. We live not just on borrowed time but borrowed everything. The earth is a patient mother, though. We can run around all over, even misbehave. In the end, she knows we will crawl back into her arms. Maybe there are two ways about it; it’s not loss, it’s returning.