Drinking with the Grim Reaper

"It's not good," my friend Fred says flatly. "They found a tumor in my head." The tumor sits on his pituitary gland and is about a millimeter across. As of yet, his doctors don't know if it is benign, actively growing, or even if it is just something that has always been there. Apparently, up to 20 percent of all people with pituitary tumors don't know they have them, making them, IMHO, fairly common. The vast majority are benign and can be removed. Fred, however, is preparing for the worst. He tells me he has anywhere from three months to five years to live. He says he got the tumor from using a cellphone. He is meditating and spending time with Thai monks, but deep in his eyes I can see his fear.

"Let's go out," he says. "I need to have fun." I know that he doesn't drink, but somehow bowling doesn't sound appealing. I ask him what he feels like doing. "I want to look at people," he replies. More than anything, he wants to go with me to a bar in the Mission. Anything for a friend, I say.

I refuse to believe that anything bad will happen to Fred, and I tell him so. On the other hand, facing death seems to be something that he needs to go through, so I do my best to listen. I have gone through this before, with a good friend who died of lymphoma at 19. The difference now is that Fred actually wants to talk about death and dying, something I could never do in my late teens.

Fred wanted to go to the Mission Bar, where the bartenders know him. I had never set foot in the place, which is really odd, seein' as I've practically covered that whole neighborhood by now. The outside has a simple sign that reads just "Bar." You've gotta love that. Inside is even simpler, with a long counter and low lighting. Nothin' fancy. There was nary a hipster to be seen, which sort of surprised me because Fred is a card-carrying member of that set — in an Adidas, Astrud Gilberto kind of way. I figured when he said he wanted to look at people, he meant cute, fashion-forward chicks. I guess the monks have really gotten to him: He is freeing himself from materialist shackles so he can move on to the next level.

I order a Jameson and he gets a ginger ale. The crowd is young and not out to prove anything; sort of the same as Fred, I suppose.

Fred has always been a bit of a kook. He used to write fortunes on little pieces of paper and leave them all over town. He also penned one-act plays and gave them names like Karl Marx in Londontown. He was being chased by UFOs for a while. Then he got interested in plants and dove headfirst into botany, becoming an overnight expert of sorts. I heard a baroque piano piece coming through his open window one night. I looked in and there he was, playing this amazing bit of music, never once telling me he had that talent. In short, he's very interesting.

Fred's eccentricity is the only thing that could explain why his family is abandoning him now. His mom, his dad, and even AA people will not return his calls. Some of his friends are also distancing themselves. His mom wants to have him committed, even though he showed her his MRI results. His situation reminds me of Andy Kaufman, who was diagnosed with lung cancer and no one believed him because that was just the sort of thing he would pull to be funny. Fred probably wants to talk about his tumor because no one else is acknowledging it.

"If you only had a few months to live, what would you do?" he asks. I automatically feel a wave of tenderness come over me. "Fred, you aren't going to die."

"Right," he says, brushing it off, "but really, what would you do?"

Just then a cute girl — a hipster, no less — plunks down next to us. I was going to encourage Fred to get laid as often as possible, that much I knew.

"I would act like a slut, for starters," I answer. "I would smoke. I would travel to see my friends." The cute girl smiles at us. She is pretty drunk. Perfect! Fred is very handsome, but for the most part he has zero mojo. Now he feels like he has nothing to lose, I was sure he could work some magic.

"But truly," I say, really giving it some thought, "I would need to tell each of my friends what they mean to me, and in turn I would like to know what I will be leaving with them ... what I have accomplished, how I have made an impression, what I have contributed."

"Yes!" he agrees. I excuse myself to the bathroom. When I get back I ask how it went. He says that he offered her his seat, since hers was rickety. She said, "But what about your lady?" He told her that I wasn't his lady, but that I was a friend who was taking him out because he had a brain tumor.

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