I walk into an ancient Italian restaurant where I used to work that no longer exists. Ali is standing by the salad pick-up line, in his waiter clothes. I say hello to him. Then I ask him, “What are you doing here?” He says, “What?” I say, “Ali, you died. What are you doing here?” He says, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where I am.” I move forward to give him a hug and tell him, “You’ll be back. Just relax and move through this.”
I’m still in the restaurant, now discovering that the building that went up over it (a 4-story condo complex) has kept most of the original restaurant. The owner is there with his wife, and they are running the place. All this at their current ages (he is 90). People are coming in. I think to myself that I should bring the restaurant critic here. I see the wines that are there and that the selection needs work. The interior of the restaurant is looking more Mexican-Southwestern than Italian.
I am now shirtless and shoeless and know I must get out of the restaurant because the owner will say something to me.
My friend, Ali, died almost two years ago. He was in his early 50s. Although he played soccer and didn’t smoke, he had diabetes and was overweight. He had a heart attack and died. It was Christmastime, and his parents came from Iran. They have a large and close family. They buried their son and went back to Iran.
I felt like I lost my friend and his family. We talked of going to Iran; this was before the two countries started acting like enemies. Then he dies, and the country turns into our enemy.
How would it affect me if this happened to Italy? I don’t know what I would do. My parents and their parents had to deal with it during WWII. I remember talking to my cousin Luigi in Calabria about what that was like, from his perspective. He had been compelled to join the Italian army and was captured by the Americans and sent to a prison in Tunisia. While he didn’t seem bitter 30 years later, he lost part of his youth, incarcerated for the crimes of his leader.
Ali and I often talked about Persia, one of the birthplaces of the grape. I studied the Persian people from my work in restaurants and learned some of their language, enough to back off the most macho bullies. I think the Persians were, to me, the most Italian of the peoples of the Middle East. I recognized some of the moves and traits, probably from my own DNA, the Sicilian melting pot that houses all these codes.
And, out of the blue in my dream, Ali appears and looks lost and confused. As if he hasn’t even been able to rest in peace. I know there are souls who don’t know they have lost their bodies. Was he one of them? And what was I doing telling him to relax, that he’d return?
Another friend of mine, Brad, should have died many times, but he is very much alive. Working as a war correspondent, he reported from the front lines of the first gulf war (GWI?), under the night lights, in front of the advancing Marines. And in Afghanistan and China and Albania, wherever there was a conflict or trouble, Brad was there. When he wrote me and told me he had stage 4 cancer, we stayed in touch. My wife was entering the beginning of the end of her life, which had been ravaged by multiple sclerosis. So we had a common thread, the closeness of death and the fragility of life.
After my wife died and after my friend overcame his cancer, through meditation (and with a little luck), I have managed to stay in touch with him. As with many people in my life, it seems I have to be the one to reach out over to their side. Now Brad has embraced yoga, is on his way to mastery of it, changed his name to a more appropriate yogic moniker, and passed into the fogless realm of self-realization. It’s not that we aren’t friends. It’s just that he seems too busy to be an active friend. So I talk to my dead friend while a living one is as if he had passed over.
These friends are like wines in my cellar. There are old wines that have lost their life and sit in the darkness, not knowing they will never be opened or enjoyed. There are wines that are still alive but going through a stage where they are undrinkable. Of course there are wines in there that are ready today, like some of my friends. A Carlo or a Patty or a William or a Joe. A Chianti or a Riesling or a Zinfandel or a Barbera.
Choose your wines like your friends. Enjoy them both. Forgive the friends (and the wines) if they don’t come up to par all the time. And open them all, often.
Photos by the author