My best friend Sue died of a brain tumor in her early fifties. Her oldest son, Joe, was killed in a car accident when he was 15. I don't think she ever got over it. Valjean McLenighan worked with me at Follett Publishing. She died of cancer, after she got to swim with dolphins, also in her late forties or early fifties. Eliot Wald was one of the early editors of “The Seed," a Chicago underground paper. He was one of the funniest people I ever knew. He went to work in Hollywood and died at age 57 in 2003.
Nelson Algren was a great writer, a National Book Award winner, and taught me stuff I'd never could have learned otherwise about the 1930s-`40s-`50s and Simone de Beauvoir.
I knew a bunch of people from Chicago's Second City who died. Some were close friends, some were acquaintances and some were in between. John Belushi and John Candy: I was frightened when they died. Del Close, actor, director, addict, led three improvisation workshops I took at Second City that basically re-informed all the education I ever had and changed my life. Joyce Sloane was the "den mother" for Second City touring companies. She taught me how strong women can be. Bernie Sahlins started Second City and died last summer, made a path to stardom for a lot of people. He hired me, taught me how to think about writing and how to write about thinking.
I know a lot of dead people from my journalist days in Chicago. Generally they were a hard-drinking, hard-living bunch. Robert Zonka was managing editor of the “Chicago Sun-Times." He hired Roger Ebert to be the newspaper’s film critic and later moved out to southwestern Michigan to edit the New Buffalo, Michigan paper for several years before he died in the late 1970s. Paul Galloway was a great newspaper writer and a wonderful story-teller. He was always someone I could call when one of my "causes" was a good story and needed city-wide publicity. Roger Ebert, of course, was brilliant and more successful than anybody I've ever known. He told me once about writing, "The magic doesn't start until you sit down at the typewriter." Tom Fitzpatrick was a celebrated writer, flamboyant reporter and Pulitzer-Prize-winning columnist. Michaela Tuohy was honestly the funniest woman I ever knew; along with being a very good writer.
This is a list you have to go over and over. Every time you think you've added up all the dead people you've ever known, you remember somebody else. All the kids who died while drinking and driving. The boys who came home from the Vietnam War in boxes. The gay guys who died in the early years of AIDS.
My Grandma Lily used to count up the number of peoples' "passings" that she attended. In those days, the word went out when someone was dying, and friends and relatives rushed to be there at the very moment. Maybe they learned something about life and death that many of us will never know.
—Oh, almost forgot. Fr. Andrew Greeley, also a columnist and a novelist, was the first sociologist to report that a majority of Catholic women actually used birth control. He blessed my current marriage in a lovely ceremony at his Grand Beach, Michigan home. He died last summer.
I can't see much into the future, but I can clearly see one thing I will need to do: Funerals. We're all going to die, and if I don't get hit by a truck soon, I'll have to attend many services and life celebrations. Note to self: Buy new black dress, a classic, in style for the next 20 years. Or 30? Perfect to be buried in, too.
—Oh other friends I almost missed. That couple who lived next door on Lil Street in Chicago. He threw knives as a hobby. She worked for the phone company. They were excited about the new life they were going to live with Jim Jones in Guyana.