“I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains.” – from The Boxer, Simon & Garfunkel
I remember the Saturday afternoon in 2009 when Gil and Sue visited our home in Bucks County and we hoisted beers, told stories and laughed the way we had since we became friends in grade school. Sometime during the day Gil pulled up his shirt and showed me scars from where surgeons cut out tumors on his torso. For eight years, Gil fought melanoma with dignity, humility and determination. Every time he got knocked down by chemo, radiation, experimental drugs and procedures, he got back up and came out for the next round bobbing and weaving. That was Gil’s style, bob and weave, flow with the punches. You can’t hit what you can’t see–Ali. At my children’s weddings my mom, brother and sister who knew about Gil’s battles but hadn’t seen him were amazed how good he looked, his killer smile, upbeat attitude, shuffling his feet on the dance floor, a cold one in his hand.
Gil was a fighter and a fight fan. He’d go to boxing venues in Philly to see hometown heroes Smokin’ Joe Frazier and Bennie Brisco, and oh B-Hop, Bernard Hopkins. He’d never bring up his own battle unless I pressed him, and then he’d simply tell me he was with the program, “I’m on the bus, Bren’s,” he’d say. It was actually a train he’d take to treatments, and then go to work, never missing a day.
Gil became one of the gang when he moved from Southwest Philly to the Northeast in eighth grade. He was a smooth dancer, Motown in the day, but then the late 60s rolled in, Woodstock and everything changed. We changed. There was Jimi and Janis, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Richie Havens (figures Gil would pass away on Carlos Santana’s birthday–Oye Como Va!) I remember going to the Spectrum with Gil to see Pink Floyd, Yes and the Allman Brothers Band, and the night we saw John Mayall we screamed, “Play Room to Move,” which the Blues Breaker didn’t. Gil loved the Allman Brothers. We’d listen to Live at the Fillmore East, “Statesboro Blues,” “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” and “Whipping Post.” Joanne and I went to see Greg Allman recently and after the concert we walked past a vendor on 69th Street. Jo said, Why don’t you get a shirt for Gil, which I did; for $10 Gil. I can hear Gil laughing.
It’s been two short years since our buddy and Gil’s best friend Billy passed away. Billy, a health conscious cyclist and triathlete, was always concerned about Gil’s battle with melanoma, and ironically contracted lung cancer and passed in what seemed a short breath. Gil and Billy are reunited.
Gil loved St. John in the Caribbean. In Billy’s absence last year him and Sue invited Jo and I to their place on the island. The first day Gil wound up in the hospital at the top of the mountain, but that didn’t dampen our spirits one bit. Undeterred, we spent the rest of the week making memories touring the island, drinking beers at Skinny Legs, and having a sunset dinner at ZoZo’s in Caneel Bay. I smile every time I think about Gil coming down to the beach one afternoon later in the week with a plastic bag full of ice and beer and saying, “Hey, Brens. I got us some frostie’s.”
Gil’s final week in hospice resembled an audience with the Pope with all of the visitors filing through to say farewell. I sat in silence early one morning and a friend who worked with Gil visited. He said that whenever he got stressed at work, Gil would say to him, “Be not afraid,” a message he wrote on a Daily News he left for Gil. Gil’s girls–his wife and two daughters–held a vigil, never leaving his side for five days. Doctors, nurses and social workers were moved by the family’s love for him, and amazed at the number of people who came to see him. They remarked about what it said about the man.
I miss my buddy already, but I smile thinking about our crazy adventures, and that’s what will keep Gil alive in my heart, our hearts. The stories, the memories, all of the good times–the concerts, parties, Keenan’s, Wildwood, weddings, the Hollywood, St. John.
Farewell, good friend
gallant warrior to the end
’twas a truly brilliant ride;
til we meet again on the other side.