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Emails to my Therapist

When A Distant Friend Dies…An Account of a Friendship

Dear Nicholas, I learned this morning that my friend Dan has died. I’ve felt close to him since about 1985, but we have never lived in the same state. The distance has never seemed to matter. When a distant friend dies, it’s still the loss of a friend.

The Difference

But the fact is hard to take in because I wasn’t expecting to see him any time soon anyway. So my daily life has not changed. My inner landscape has.

Not to hear his voice again, or his wild cackle when he’s telling (or hearing) a good story–that’s a loss. And I’ll be for a while less sure of who is safe and well today and who might have died in the night.

I got the news about Dan from my husband who was reading The New York Times at our kitchen table. “He was prolific and acclaimed,” said the The Times’ lengthy news story, “producing novels, journalism, essays, criticism, screenplays and, in a memoir, an account of his path from faith to atheism and back again.”

His last book was published when he was ninety. The Wall Street Journal gave it what he said was the best review of his life. And he has gotten some good reviews. His spiritual memoir Returning is glorious.

I Want Him To Know

I so wish he could see the glowing praise now of him and his work. Two of his novels, Going All The Way and Starting Over, were huge bestsellers and were made into movies. And yet, like almost all writers, he had his struggles. He was good company as I dealt with struggles of my own.

We began to become friends–and he became a mentor for me–when the phone rang one night about 10:30. A stranger was on the line.

An Unfamiliar Voice

“This is Dan Wakefield,” he said. “I know it’s late to call but I know when it’s about your novel, that doesn’t matter.”

So true. And so characteristic of him to begin that way, with wry humor and an offer of help to a yet-to-be-published novelist he’d never met. A mutual friend had given him a short story of mine which I was then turning into the first chapter of a novel, Revelation. He wanted to know about progress on this novel; he wanted to nominate it for an award. Wow!

His voice was so warm that I felt as if I’d known him for years.

“For Life”

The first time I met him in person was when he was teaching a writing workshop in Durham, half an hour from me. He came to dinner at our house, followed up with a three-line note that said, “Now we’re friends for life.”

The times I spent with him after that first get-together were writing events which he generously arranged for me to be part of: teaching together for a week at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York, speaking at Florida International University, several years of teaching weeks at Rancho La Puerta spa in Mexico.

His Help To Me

He once contributed a piece to this blog–about getting old. He spoke of my work in Image journal and the front page of The New York Times Book Review. And yet the help he gave me seemed an almost incidental part of our connection, a way to arrange hanging out. And I was not even one of his closest friends. In addition to being a well-known writer, he was famously good at being friends, on both coasts as well as The Great Plains.

The Mortality Problem

Dan didn’t like the idea of death. I remember an evening when he was a bit disgruntled. He’d read in The Times that day that actress Audrey Hepburn had died. He and she were about the same age. But the story didn’t say–as it should have–that her death was untimely. That was unsettling.

The Continuing Conversation

In the last few years, our only contact was occasional and on the telephone. His vision was drastically faded, but he could still get the gist of a ballgame on TV. I thought we’d speak again. We will. But the conversation will be in my heart and head. Though his faith and mine do strongly suggest that there is more.

I’m working on making sense of this, feeling so much gratitude for Dan, and sending my condolences to his other friends and his beloved goddaughter Karina.


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  • kenju
    March 15, 2024 at 11:18 pm Reply

    I’m sorry for your loss, Peggy. As we get older, it happens more and more often. My dad said, when he was 88, “If my friends don’t stop dying, there will be no one left to attend my funeral.” I grieved the death of his friends right along with him. I hope your friend Dan will rest in Peace, and be aware of his glowing reviews (too little, to late).

    • Peggy Payne
      March 15, 2024 at 11:24 pm Reply

      Thanks, Judy. You sure have still-recent experience with a huge loss.

  • Ann B Hammon
    March 15, 2024 at 11:41 pm Reply

    I have loved his writing! I am saddened to hear of his death. Returning is an incredible book. It feels as if we have lost another “good guy”. I am sorry for your loss.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 15, 2024 at 11:43 pm Reply

      Thank you, Ann. I sure share your feeling about Returning. A gorgeous book. And he was definitely a good guy–also a lot of fun,

  • Lee Grohse
    March 16, 2024 at 12:26 am Reply

    I’m sorry you’ve lost your friend, Peggy. He sounds like a remarkably likable person. I will get one of his books to read. Sounds like he’s somebody whose words will be well worth hearing.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 16, 2024 at 12:55 am Reply

      Remarkably likable is a perfect description, Lee. I’ll be interested to hear what you read.

  • bob
    March 16, 2024 at 2:09 am Reply

    Peggy, I’m so sorry your friend Dan died, and I know losing him is a deep pain for you. He was indeed remarkably likable, energetically positive, and deeply spiritual, a fine man all around. Meeting and knowing him thru you was my closest contact with another fine and well known writer. Despite his great accomplishments, he was a really accessible, friendly, warm and kind, regular guy,- and a srong supporter of your writing. It was my fortunate pleasure to have known him all these years, and I miss him too. This death thing is something I’ll never get used to. bob

    • Peggy Payne
      March 16, 2024 at 2:16 am Reply

      Thank you for this, Bob. We did have good times. (picture heart emoji here)

      • bob
        March 16, 2024 at 2:32 am Reply

        Me too, and we still do. heart emoji here.

  • George Wingate
    March 16, 2024 at 3:34 am Reply

    We all dinned together years ago …in New York I believe. Thank you for that occasion. I recall his affect (effect?)…kind, alert, hip, caring, just what the others say here. I’m sorry for your loss.
    In the way of things others may take up some of the slack, my fill some of the void. . There is only one Dan Wakefield. (Easy and complex to say…each of us is unique).

    • Peggy Payne
      March 16, 2024 at 3:39 am Reply

      I remember that dinner, George. You hosted us at the Explorer’s Club, I believe. You and he both had a strong interest in spirituality. It was an interesting and fun night. (And I remember an oyster appetizer!)

  • Brent
    March 16, 2024 at 2:34 pm Reply

    Nice tribute to Dan, Peggy. I ran into him occasionally when he was “back home again in Indiana” as our state song says. I always enjoyed my times with him — a true story-teller and spiritual sage. May his memory be eternal.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 16, 2024 at 4:56 pm Reply

      We clearly knew the same guy, Brent. And I like the idea of memory eternal. There are sure a lot of folks who’ll remember him.

  • March 17, 2024 at 11:52 am Reply

    Peggy, I’m sorry for your loss of Dan Wakefield. In reading your post, I was struck by the New York Times characterization of his memoir, “Returning,” as an account of “his path from faith to atheism and back again”—specifically by the “back again” part, because I have followed the “from faith to atheism” part myself and I can’t see myself following the “back again” part. Driving past any of the many churches in and around Mebane, where my wife and I live, continues to prick my skin and hurry me on. I’m going to have to drive into “Returning” to see whether it has a similar effect on me.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 17, 2024 at 5:03 pm Reply

      I’m impressed by your open-mindedness, Morris, in being willing to read this. And I’m interested in you response to it.

  • Kenju
    March 17, 2024 at 5:04 pm Reply

    So am I.

    • March 18, 2024 at 11:35 am Reply

      Kenju, after Peggy’s reply, and yours seconding it, it’ll be hard for me not to pick up and read the Wakefield book, which UNC’s Walter Royal Davis Library already has on hold for me. I will point out now, though, that Wakefield’s path away from faith seems to have been much different from mine. From what I’ve gleaned about him so far, his leaving was out of desperation; mine was a long, long road that I zigzagged down for about forty years following my 12-year-older’s “come to Jesus” moment at an evangelical revival meeting. (In 1972, I fictionalized a child’s quandary in a short short story [posted on my blog in 2014, under the title “Patsy”:

      • Peggy Payne
        March 25, 2024 at 9:54 pm Reply

        Thanks for the link to Patsy, Morris.

  • March 19, 2024 at 5:07 pm Reply

    Peggy, are you okay? My second comment has been in moderation for more than 24 hours. I hope you (and Bob) are all right.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 25, 2024 at 9:53 pm Reply

      I’m okay, Morris. WordPress didn’t alert me to your comment–or somehow I didn’t see it.

  • March 22, 2024 at 9:02 pm Reply

    Kenju, after Peggy’s reply, and yours seconding it, it was impossible for me not to read “Returning,” even though Dan Wakefield’s path away from faith seems to have been much different from mine—his early in life, mine 40 years after a “come to Jesus” moment when I was twelve. I picked his book up Wednesday from UNC’s Walter Royal Davis Library and began reading the same day. I love the man’s writing. I see what Peggy and others here are talking about. The man has my ear. Stay tuned.

    • Peggy Payne
      March 25, 2024 at 9:52 pm Reply

      I’m so glad you’re loving the writing, Morris. I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

  • March 26, 2024 at 7:51 pm Reply

    I just read Dan’s account of his childhood vision of Light, in the first chapter of Part II, and was glad to be reminded of my own “mystical vision” at age 22:
    Creatures [as posted on my blog in 2006]
    The year I was twenty-two, while taking a nap on a delightful, rainy Spring afternoon in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, I experienced what I have always thought of as a “mystical vision.” It had that special feeling. In my vision I beheld a Universe filled with golden light, pervaded by an eloquent silence so profound it could have been composed by Bach, if not by an angel. In this light danced the most beautiful specks of dust, and I understood, with that special self-validating sense of knowing, that I was utterly dependent upon the Creator of this Universe for my existence. I had not created myself. I could not even ensure that I would take another breath. I had not created any of those specks of dust. And I could not create one. Yet, viewing that wondrous field of golden light, listening to that profound silence, utterly sure of my creaturehood, I felt at peace, full of calm.

    • Peggy Payne
      April 2, 2024 at 4:20 pm Reply

      Thanks for telling about this, Morris. It’s the kind of experience I’ve been hoping for forever. It’s good to know it can happen.

  • March 26, 2024 at 8:02 pm Reply

    By the way, though I am not “religious” in an organized “believe in God,” church-going way, I do consider myself “spiritual.” I feel at one not only with my fellow men and women but also with all creatures “here below.” And though I do not believe that Jesus was “the Son of God,” I do relate to him and consider him a role-model in being a servant to others.

    • Peggy Payne
      April 2, 2024 at 4:24 pm Reply

      I think there are a lot of folks who identify with you on this, Morris. I think of myself as religious, though I don’t fully identify with any religion. Likely not many people believe all of any religion.

  • April 5, 2024 at 3:10 pm Reply

    I just read the following smile-provoking passage on pp. 50-51 of Dan’s memoir “Returning”: “I had prayed to be on the [football] team, but I didn’t blame God that I didn’t make it, and in fact was rather ashamed I had bothered Him with such small-time concerns as freshman football when He had a whole universe to run. I consoled myself by whistling ‘What a Friend I Have in Jesus,’ believing the Son of God would understand my plight since he after all had been human himself. I took it on faith that Jesus had been a teenager, assuming the lack of any record of those years was simply to spare him the ungodly embarrassment that goes with adolescence.” I love it! The wry comparison rises almost to the level of Richard Russo’s novel “Everybody’s Fool.” I’m sorry it took Dan’s passing to lead me to his work. Thank you, Peggy, for being his emissary.

    • Peggy Payne
      April 5, 2024 at 7:20 pm Reply

      Oh, I’m so glad you like it, Morris! I’d forgotten the idea of Jesus as a teenager. It does stir the imagination. Dan’s sense of humor was always delightful.

  • May 21, 2024 at 6:30 pm Reply

    Finally! I finished reading “Returning” a few minutes ago. It’s a jewel with so many facets, I see no way that I, with a brain that has only a fraction of the power Wakefield’s had, can relate my “spiritual path” to his. I do think, though, that I too have “returned” in the sense that I again think about spiritual matters, even as I continue to avoid church and assemblies of “believers.” (I had to skim sections of the church-going scenes in the final chapters, the happenings were just too “other-directed” for me to warm up to. Adult Wakefield seemed to have become a child again, in need of cohorts to keep him going. I got the distinct impression that he had to participate in church activities in order to be bolstered up into continuing to believe what he wanted to believe.) My own faith is in the moment, in my muse Artesia’s showing me the light. What or who Artesia is remains a divine mystery. Wakefield had an amazing life. Over-the-top alcoholic. Deep diver into Freudian psycho-analysis (before realizing it was bollocks and a waste of his parents’ money). Incredible journalist and fiction writer. Vast memory of events and places and people. Great servant to others. I am sorry for your loss, Peggy.

    • Peggy Payne
      May 22, 2024 at 10:02 pm Reply

      Dan would so appreciate this appreciation from you, Moristotle. I wish he could read it and maybe he can. He was a very talented and personally charismatic man. A dear friend, indeed. I wish you and Artemisia well!

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