The news was unexpected, sad, but not especially shocking: My friend and former colleague Morris Chafetz had died. He was sufficiently famous that there were long obituaries in both The New York Times and The Washington Post. Though I suppose the circumstance of his death figured into it, too.
Morris E. Chafetz, M.D., was a psychiatrist. He had gone to and graduated with honors from Harvard Medical School at a time when Jewish people were still not often accepted there. Due to a staffing assignment he didn't much like at first, he came to know a great deal about the disease of alcoholism. He went on to found the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and was appointed to various public health posts by a succession of presidents.
All along the way — well, for the last 65 of his 87 years, anyway — was his wife, Marion. She was totally lovely, and anyone who ever met her was better for the experience.
I got to know them a little more than eight years ago. He had been bothered by the growing tendency by powerful institutions to generalize about people, something that he did not think was possible to do in any useful way. He wanted to make a book that illustrated this view, and he needed help writing it. (He had written other books, but now he was busy and age was taking its toll, too.) Our agent, Jessica Papin, suggested me to him and him to me.
We met — Dr. Chafetz, Marion, and me — and hit it off fabulously. I would first prepare the proposal for the book and then, if it sold (which it did), I would put it together.
I left our dinner meeting excited about the book but, more than that, filled with the contentment that comes of meeting people you truly like. Dr. Chafetz — I never called him “Morris” — and Marion, though both around 80, were like high school sweethearts. Actually, it was more than that. Though they had the excitement of high school sweethearts, they also knew each other so thoroughly that it was clear they had grown into one person, greater than the sum of the parts.
I got the proposal together, went through a round of edits with Jessica, and it was put out for bids. It was purchased. Time now to do the book.
Every day or two a letter would arrive in the mail, almost always a clipping with notes written in the margins. There were frequent phone calls, always ending with Dr. Chafetz saying, “Dennis, I think we're on to something!” I'd always ask how “my best girl” was, and we'd laugh, and usually she'd get on the phone to say hello.
The couple often spent time in New England, and we'd have dinner as they passed through Connecticut on their way to and from the cottage they rented. Every time, I'd leave the dinner thinking how they behaved so like young lovers and how I was the old, cynical one.
I'd made the mistake of mentioning that I had once written a book in a month. Dr. Chafetz took this as my pledge that when I started writing his book I'd be done in a month. He held me to it, too.
That month was June 2004. I began on the first of the month and emailed him the last pages an hour or so after midnight on July 1. We had a nice, civilized working title, but the publisher inexplicably and intractably insisted upon calling it Big Fat Liars. It came out in the summer of 2005. Dr. Chafetz and I (and a few others) thought it was good.
By then I had moved to Ohio. Though we kept in touch, our contacts became fewer as, sadly, often happens. I'd phone from time to time, speak with Dr. Chafetz, and then he'd say, “I know who you really called to talk with,” and he would laugh and put Marion on the phone. Though the years had been increasingly hard on her health, she was spirited as ever. They were still a couple of playmates, enjoying life together. You couldn't help but smile.
In due course, even those calls trailed off. People get busy, will phone real soon now — you know the excuses. The fault was entirely mine; I should have been more attentive. It's an offense no less awful for its commonness.
I intended to give them a call soon. Really I did.
Then came the newspaper and its headline that Dr. Chafetz was dead. Saddened but not surprised, I turned to the story and learned that there was more, much more, than the headline disclosed.
Marion, it turned out, had been in failing health and had gone from their apartment in the Watergate building in Washington D.C. to an assisted living facility. There, on October 13, she had died.
The next day, Dr. Chafetz phoned his sons — the couple had three sons, I should mention. Living without Marion, he said, was not among the things he considered possible. So he was going to die now. Which he did.
No one who knew them could have been surprised.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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