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Emails to my Therapist

Death of a Friend–It’s Complicated. Email to My Therapist

Dear Therapist Nicholas, I’m going to go ahead and write this while it’s very fresh. Our old friend Robert Goforth died three weeks ago. The memorial service yesterday was a sunshiny party outdoors in the country with live bluegrass, high-powered margaritas, and a Mexican buffet. I felt okay enough while we were there–it was such a lovely celebration of him–but was jangled, befuddled, and testy before and after. The death of a friend is a loss that’s pretty new to me.

On Facebook, people describe relationships by saying either single or married or in a relationship with x or “it’s complicated.” This relationship was important, cherished and complicated.

Moreover, he just didn’t seem like the type to die. And he didn’t give or get a lot of warning about it.


He and Bob were connected for 50 years. Me, about half that long, since Robert was living in Houston the first years Bob and I were married. I didn’t think of Robert as someone who could die, because he was so vigorous and extraordinarily capable: a black belt in Aikido, a businessman who made enough to retire very early, a fixer and maker of machinery, a software developer, a restaurant co-owner, a talented gardener and cook and keeper of livestock, a Kawasaki rider and mechanic, a top-drawer chess and poker player, and a real charmer.

When we saw him for a few minutes four days before his death — of cancer that had spread all over–he whispered, “Hale and hearty two weeks ago.”

Robert, closest to stern paddler, Bob, in front, my stepsons Chuck, sitting up high, William, R of Bob


It had been a long time since we’d seen him, because he and Bob had a bad misunderstanding some years ago. They never got it straight. Contacts after that were few and strained. Before that happened most any conversation with Robert felt intimate; he had that way of connecting with people.

As it happened, he and Bob were both facing a strong death possibility this past December. When I emailed Robert to tell him of Bob’s heart surgery, I added a PS: “Bob told me a while ago not to meddle, but I’m going to say this much anyway: he never meant….”

Writing back, Robert mentioned that he was having some health problems too and soon an exploratory surgery. About the friendship and troubles with Bob, he wrote: there was bound to be trouble between “a pair of buttheads” like the two of them. When I read that, the tone told me that the old anger was gone.

Robert, in addition to all his talents, had a tendency to angry depression. And my own dear husband also seriously overplays the curmudgeon card at times. A pair of lovable talented buttheads, indeed.


I used to cringe at the idea of sticky last conversations. My feelings have changed completely. I want the chance for those moments. Because Bob had a close call in December and my mother did in March, we in effect have had those talks. Wow, what a lightening, reviving, air-clearing thing to have done! Both of them survived and are doing well. Crises past! And we have the benefit of those talks as we go on.

I am so grateful that I had the chance to have that conversation with Robert. It was once again the best of times, totally unguarded and even light-hearted for moments. When I first walked into the room and saw him so close to his death, he looked pale and somehow-already-elsewhere. The comment I immediately blurted to this former wild child of the Seventies was, “You look like Ram Dass.” He grinned his same old sunshine grin, though he had energy for only a few words.

I am happy that he has been happy. Most important, he had 14 years with his wife, also exceptionally remarkable, Dr. Mina Choi. He was at peace with his life and, at the so-young age of 67, with his life’s ending.

Robert Goforth and his wife Mina Choi

I wish we could have had the deathbed talk and then more time with him, as has happened with Mom and Bob. The death of a friend is hard.

Robert, William, Chuck


Been a lot of focus on death recently. Once Mom and Bob were clearly going to make it– and another loved one gave us a scare and recovered– I’d happily let the subject slide some.

But then this month, there has been Robert, who was not saved in the nick of time. Last Tuesday, Bob and I ate dinner at La Farm Bakery, the same place we had been on the Tuesday 4.5 months ago when his heart crisis struck. We bagged up a bunch of scones and took them to the Apex Wake Med hospital emergency room where the Tuesday night staff had saved his life. Strange to walk in there again. Great to do it together.

Then this past Saturday, Bob gave a talk to therapists at the N.C. Psychological Association conference about dealing with the deaths of patients and the fears and loss and second-guessing that can involve. He got choked up during the presentation. It was pretty stirring.

Today when Bob left the house he said to me, “Be safe! Be here when I get back!” Then as an afterthought, he yelled back down the hall: “Be you!”

In these recent days, he has written haiku about Robert’s death. From one:

“What is this thing, death?
Steals around behind us all.”

The closing of another:

“Good-bye, old buddy.”

Hearing that last line, I also hear in my head Robert and Bob cackling over Bob’s ancient copies of the hippie-days comic book, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. I’m glad he had a buddy who could share his delight in that.

I think I’m likely to let myself imagine that Robert is still living on his farm and we just don’t hear from him all that often. But he’s around…. I do feel that he is.


Robert and me

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  • Kenju
    May 2, 2017 at 3:55 am Reply

    I’m so very sorry for your loss. It’s happening far too often to us.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 2, 2017 at 3:59 am Reply

      Thank you, Kenju. I suspect you know quite a lot about this. Good wishes for your health!

  • May 2, 2017 at 5:20 am Reply

    Peggy, I am so sorry for your loss of this friend. I would love to hear more about how you know he’s around. I’m touched by a growing understanding that death is not such a solid core door. I have always heard that the love leaks through to us, and now I am becoming able to perceive it more. Still, it hurts when they go. Take care with yourself and Bob. With Love, Randee

    • Peggy Payne
      May 2, 2017 at 2:09 pm Reply

      Randee, I fear that with Robert, it’s less mystical and more that I’d grown used to feeling him around even when he wasn’t while he was alive. So it’s easy to imagine that that continues. But I do like and have great hopes for the fragile door! Would love to hear any evidence for this in your experience.

  • Robert Braxton
    May 2, 2017 at 2:05 pm Reply

    67 IS so young! (age of my first sister, died right after our return from 2 weeks plus, Kenya, East Africa (spouse and I). She is 5 1/2 years my junior (our two brothers 1945, 1947 intervene). She died following Alzheimers, same as my / our father Braxton. I am older now than my father’s 72 when he died 1988. Two years ago (almost to the day) Mama Rachel died at home, another sister (the middle one, Sheila) Haw River, NC.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 2, 2017 at 2:10 pm Reply

      Too many deaths, Robert Braxton!

  • May 2, 2017 at 3:16 pm Reply

    Thank you for sharing your sorrow and fears and the way you’re dealing with them. And thank you for many of your recent posts, sharing your personal experience with so many things the rest of us either try to deal with or avoid. You’ve got a way of saying things that many of us sort of feel, but either can’t or don’t want to put into public words – and you say them so well. Thank you for your sensitivity and sharing.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 2, 2017 at 3:17 pm Reply

      Wow, Jim Maney, I so appreciate this!!

  • Jane Albright
    May 2, 2017 at 3:33 pm Reply

    A part of me believes I’m going to live to be very old, and will outlive almost everyone I know. While that sounds like loneliness, I’ve decided that it means that I must be there for each of my loved ones in their last days. I plan to be good at that good-bye. Which means just being present.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 2, 2017 at 3:46 pm Reply

      Marvelous plan, Jane! I do like the idea of just presence and not having-to-say-do-the-right-thing. Any conversation where I must say the right thing is pretty much doomed. I too intend and expect to live to a great old age.I suspect most of us do. My mom’s making some good progress on that, setting a good genetic example. We’ll see…. I also hang onto the fact that Steve Jobs last words were “Oh, Wow! Oh, Wow! Oh, Wow.!”

  • Mary
    May 3, 2017 at 12:16 am Reply

    Beautiful, beautiful poignant piece, Peggy. I’m so sorry.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 3, 2017 at 12:58 am Reply

      Thank you and thank you, Mary!

  • Ron Perkinson
    May 3, 2017 at 11:18 am Reply

    Peggy -I find death of a friend, or of a relative other than an immediate family member, has secondary effects after the sense of loss is absorbed. Assuming there is a semi-social gathering(visitation, wake, reception, etc) , I see people with whom I have lost touch, not because of estrangement, but because life happened. On many such occasions I have benefitted from renewed kinship or friendship.
    Another result is more troubling. Frequently the deceased and I shared a moment or a memory which was exclusive to our relationship. The opportunity to share that is lost. Even worse, should I forget a name or place which is integral to that experience, there is no one to remind me. This compounds the loss.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 3, 2017 at 3:29 pm Reply

      Well thought out and observed, Ron Perkinson, on a subject that it’s so easy to get blurry about.

      At a recent funeral, I commented to someone on how many people I was seeing from way back and a woman passing said, “Oh, funerals are for seeing people.”

  • John Orr
    May 8, 2017 at 7:02 pm Reply

    Thanks for the honest and loving tribute to your friend, Robert. Best wishes to you and Bob.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 9, 2017 at 3:25 pm Reply

      Thanks, John. And Bob was glad to hear from you as well.

  • Su Cartmell
    October 30, 2018 at 10:08 pm Reply

    Saw this just now as I was browsing around. Read carefully and connected the dots. Your dear friend was my doctor’s husband… Powerful messages, enjoyed reading. And yes, she is such a wonderful person. I am happy that your friend Robert had a great life with her.
    Dealing with losses has been a journey that I am still processing every day. Lost my mom, aged 50 and dad, aged 53; then in 2016 , dear sister died at age 60… all so young! And so missed…
    Hard to describe feelings. Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Peggy Payne
      October 31, 2018 at 6:55 pm Reply

      You certainly have had hard early losses, Su Cartmell. And I like that you made the connection between Robert, Mina, and me. He did have a great life with her. I’m now writing posts about my mother’s death three weeks ago. But she was 96, which is supposed to make it more okay.

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