According to a Facebook notification, Saturday was my friend Jeffery’s birthday. At least it would have been if he were still alive. On this site, I’ve referred vaguely to a “talented chef” on many occasions as the source for various culinary tendencies or revelations. There is a coterie of professionals from whom I take inspiration, but the bounds of my aesthetic bear Jeffery’s influence more than any other.
I also get an electronic reminder when it’s my friend Daniel’s birthday. He endured an astonishing ten year battle versus recurring brain tumors before succumbing. Another Jeffery, brother of my brother in-law, fell to a heart attack in his early thirties while jogging. Jason’s motor cycle stood no chance against a truck on a rainy Oklahoma highway. I sent Chris home for being high during his shift. He was fired and died of an overdose two weeks later. CJ’s life as an evangelical ended with ALS. Can a guy pull off the nickname “Spanky” into his late thirties? I knew one who could – father and all – until, again, heart attack. All still inhabit either Facebook or Google Contacts.
Mom’s fight against lung cancer was both too short and too long. My father in-law carried a stoic collection of maladies but lived as if he were hale and hearty until the last moment. Both eschewed social media. Thanks to the cloud, my Dad’s home phone number comes up as “Mom and Dad” despite seven years without Mom. My father in-law’s defunct number has followed me through three phone changes. SIM cards are elephantine.
Obviously I could edit or delete their entries, but I don’t want to. It’s not as if I would forget any of them without prompts from the virtual world. My mother was an indelible presence to those not raised by her much less to her children. My father in-law was, at 6’5″ and north of three hundred pounds, larger than life, both literally and figuratively. But this is a new manner of memorial. Those who passed in the last ten or so years are among the first in history to be virtually enshrined and I’m grateful. I like spending a few minutes every tenth of December considering what a polymath Daniel was.
That said, I was wholly unprepared for Jeffery’s first birthday in forty-five years that was without Jeffrey.
We met in Savannah, in 1998. He had just left a successful turn as the executive chef in Tuscon to return to The Hostess City with his girlfriend and to work in her family’s restaurant which, as it happened, was where I eventually found employment.
I mentioned above that I used the phrase “talented” to describe him. He really was. And he was generous with his time. He, my soon to be wife, and I all lived in the same apartment building and dinner was often communal. I feel like in those three years I spent in Savannah I learned more about food and wine than at any other time in my life. Jeffrey was my chief teacher.
His coq au vin, the first dish he ever taught me to make, is among the best I’ve ever had and it’s all the more amazing the next day with your house still redolent of herbs de Provence. His coffee and sugar based rub for steaks would tempt a devout Hindu. Speaking of coffee, if I remember properly it was a coffee and honey crusted rack of lamb that won him an award in Tuscon and managed to defeat an IRS audit (long story).
He would obsess on whatever captured his interest. Whether it was cycling, computer games, sushi making, or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer he would attack his subject and plumb it mercilessly, moving on to the next object fixe when the last one was exhausted. In retrospect maybe I should have seen a desperation. A need to find purpose.
In 2001, I moved back to Birmingham with my fiance. We kept in touch with him, visited on occasion, he was in our wedding, but eventually visits became phone calls and then emails or messages on Facebook. Along the way he did something that infuriated me and there was a six month hiatus in communications. Time passed, we resumed contact, but it was intermittent. I remember trying to get a hold of him around this time last year after a public Facebook post in which he said he was sad and depressed and needed a job. I never could get in touch.
He eventually left Savannah to start over in San Diego where his sister was living. When things didn’t go so well he moved near his parents in Michigan, again, to start over.
At a memorial for him in Savannah, I learned about his last few years. Whether he was self medicating to cope with chronic hip pain from an apparently botched surgery or just plain old drinking too much, he developed quite a habit; a liter and a half of vodka a day I’m told. After losing his job at one of the nations finest restaurants he refused to work for any of the competition. Mutual friends said it was pride.
He spurned his friends and any offers of help. Eventually, last summer in Michigan, unemployed, evicted, and facing mandatory jail time for at least two DUIs he went to an island on a lake near Kalamazoo and took his own life. So complete was his self imposed isolation that his we, his Savannah friends, didn’t find out he was gone until September, two months after the fact.
So I don’t know how to react to my electronic notice. On the one hand, I want to celebrate the life of my friend, at least the happy parts. I hear the voices saying he was a victim of depression, that he fell to a disease. I loved him and wish it could have all been truffles and confit. His was not the life I wanted for him. On the other hand, he shot and killed my friend. I can’t easily forgive that.
A year from now I’ll get another Facebook reminder and another a year from that. I suspect time will temper my anger. I really want this to be a happy birthday someday.