The Unexpected Blessing of Inherited Friends

When my father died two years ago, I inherited more than his truck and his favorite rugs.

I also inherited his wacky friend.

My father didn’t do many things very well in the last few months of his life, but he never lost his knack for friendship. If he liked you (and he liked almost everyone in some way) he bent over backward to help every way that he could. He knew how to listen. He knew how to make things work. He wasn’t a saint (and he’d be the first to admit it) – he drank too much, he used “all the words” in his considerable vocabulary, and he had crochety moments that would make even elderly men with shotguns run for cover –

but I loved him, and his friends did too.

Shortly after Dad died I got a phone call from one of his friends.  This wasn’t one of the family friends I’d known virtually since birth. This was a new friend, acquired since my father moved from Los Angeles to the coastal California town where he lived the last years of his life.  For the sake of discussion (and to protect the innocent) we’ll call the friend Al.

Dad and Al spent a lot of time together, partly because neither of them had many other good friends close by. They shared some of the same problems and had a similar sense of humor. In an ironic twist, each of them thought he was “looking out for” the other – when in reality they both had similar needs.

My dad died suddenly but quietly. His death came as a shock to friends and family alike, but it probably startled Al more than the rest. He didn’t have family or other friends nearby and he had no one to help him grieve.

For reasons I didn’t (and still don’t fully) understand, that privilege fell to me.

Al had my number because my dad often called me from Al’s home.  Al’s estrangement from his own daughter made him eager to ensure that Dad and I suffered no such problems. (For the record, we didn’t anyway. I suspect Al just liked hearing Dad communicate with his daughter – and Dad often put Al on the phone with me, ‘just to say hello’.) It surprised me when Al called me in the first days after Dad died, and more when he claimed Dad had made him promise to keep in touch with me. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It sounded like something Dad might do – and as much for Al’s benefit as for mine. He had often told me Al would have nobody when he (my dad) was gone, and I wouldn’t put it past him to protect his friend in the guise of protecting me.

That’s what I thought at the time.

Consumed by early grief, I found Al’s calls very difficult to bear. His presence intruded on my mental space. His questions about how I was “holding up” were crushing – though not half as painful as when he asked if I knew how much my Dad had loved me. That question never failed to bring instant tears to my eyes.

Several people asked me why I took Al’s calls. Al always asked if I minded, and offered to leave me alone if I said the word.  But I didn’t. I told everyone I did it for Al’s benefit – I had a support structure and Al had none. I did it to be generous, or so I thought.

In the end, I did it for me, though it took almost a year to understand why.

Al is a reminder of my dad. He is goofy and kind and imperfect. His calls have now fallen off to once a month or so, but he never fails to call and almost always when I need him. If he ever goes too long without calling I’ll have to dust off the phone book and track him down.

I have grown to love Al, mainly because my father showed me how.

All is no one I would have met on my own, and I had no obligation to care for him. I inherited him like the hammers and paintings and Dad’s old lamp with the missing shade – things my father cared for very much, but whose value lies primarily in the beholder’s eye. To some Al would seem a burden, a man who calls out of the blue every month or two and needs me far more than I might seem to need him.

I see things differently now.

Al reminds me that my father always had time to talk with a friend. He reminds me of the way dad considered it important to “check in” with the people he loved. And yes, he still tells me how much my father loved me – and despite the years between me and my grief those words still bring tears to my eyes, but they do it in a good way now.

If you find yourself in possession of a strange, inherited friend don’t be so quick to dismiss him as a burden or a chore. Privilege often lurks behind burden’s facade, where only the patient and generous can find it. Take a moment to give of yourself to another, expecting nothing in return, and you might just find that you also receive a gift.

I am truly grateful for Al and the lesson he represents. Whether or not dad left them to me intentionally (and most days I think he did), I count them among his most important gifts.