Harry and Lucy: Mourning the Losses

When young people die it sticks with us. As we get older death comes closer, becomes more frequent and familiar. Last week’s 50th anniversary of JFK’s death brought us non-stop recollections that have refreshed our memory of him. His face is frozen in time. Our memories of him endure. It’s easy to think of him as ageless.

My best friend died young too. He committed suicide, and his 34-year-old image is embedded in my memory. Ann Patchett’s friend, the poet Lucy Grealy, was 39 when she overdosed on heroin. Ann’s posthumous portraits of Lucy, The Face of Pain (New York Magazine) and Truth and Beauty memorialize their friendship and helped her grieve.

Ann Patchett

We all process grief differently, but I think when we are young the death of a friend sets itself more deeply. It’s unnatural. It’s out of sequence. It’s not supposed to happen, and when it does it leaves a scar and imprint on us.

Harry and I met in the Marine Corps. We were classmates in an Officer Candidate Class, at Quantico – 1st platoon, Charlie Company, Training and Test Regiment. Twelve weeks in the boiling, sweat-staining heat and humidity of a Virginia summer.

Harry had the upper bunk; I had the lower. On the day we checked in he dropped his steel helmet on my head while sorting through his new and unfamiliar gear. It was typical. Harvard had not prepared him for the military. As our training progressed it seemed he was never able to divine what the drill instructors wanted. In an organization that demands uniformity and at a time when self-interest and survival depend on blending in he was the one person in the platoon our eye would always be drawn to – some item of his uniform was not quite right or his rifle would be held at slightly the wrong angle. If the DI’s bloused their trousers with an elastic cord just above the ankle, Harry would blouse his near the calf. If their utility caps were worn with the bill just above the eyebrows, Harry would have his tilted slightly back on his forehead like a hayseed from the Ozarks. The DI’s were merciless with him.

My gift, if I had one, was observation and imitation. I knew instinctively what the DI’s wanted, and that’s how Harry and I became friends. I helped him figure it out, taught him how to shine his boots and starch his cap, and together we survived to be commissioned in 1959.

We came from very different backgrounds; Harry grew up in Oyster Bay, and his family had other homes in Maine and Florida. He went to boarding school at St. Paul’s, then on to Harvard and Tufts Medical School. When he died he was the chief surgical resident at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. My father sold insurance, and I went to public school and a state university. When Harry died I was a Pan Am co-pilot. I had something he wished for and I envied the ease with which doors opened for him.

The summer before he died we spent time traveling together in France and hanging out at a rented villa in Italy. We were in our primes at 34. That winter we skied together in Aspen. In April I was a pallbearer at his funeral. It was his second suicide attempt and this time he was successful. 42 years later I’m still pissed. I knew there were recurring bouts of depression, but it was inconceivable to me that he could think of killing himself. We were planning more ski trips and other world wanderings. Now I understand. Some people are so wounded and in such psychic pain that it cannot be denied.


Ann Patchett’s friend, Lucy Grealy, was one of those people too. Lucy was a poet and a classmate of Ann’s at Sarah Lawrence and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. She was also the victim of an odd and aggressive form of cancer that resulted in partial loss of her jawbone and facial disfigurement. Her book The Autobiography of a Face won the Whiting Writer’s Award in 1995. Last night Nancy Pearl interviewed Ann about her new book of essays, The Story of a Happy Marriage. This morning I read, The Face of Pain, about her friendship with Lucy and Lucy’s decline and death from a heroin overdose.

Lucy Grealy

At the end of Nancy Pearl’s interview there was Q&A. The last questioner was a man whose wife recently passed away from a brain tumor. He had blogged daily while she was dying and friends told him he should publish a book about it. He asked what she thought. Her answer was the soul of compassion and good sense. She told him to keep writing, that there might be a book there, but in the end it would be his story – that it would always be his and would help him deal with his loss and grief.


I miss Harry. I think of all the things we might have done together – the powder turns, rum drinks on the beach, meals missed, books and films savored. He killed himself when my wife was pregnant with our son – Douglas Payne Bernard – my middle name and Harry’s. So, I haven’t totally lost him. He’s still around to remind me of the times we had and the times we missed.

This is Douglas Payne. He even looks a little like both of us.



  1. Timely. Mortality has been on my mind of late. We just returned from a memorial service for Pat Goldsworthy who you may or may not have known or heard of. He was the founding genius behind the NCCC (North Cascades Conservation Council) in the 1960s, an organization in which both Willa and I have served time on the Board. There would be no North Cascades Nat’l Park without Pat. At the memorial they showed a photo of him with LBJ in D.C. when the park was officially designated. Pat was a researcher in the UW Med School but his true love was the mountains. He had a tragic life, first wife died of MS, then his only child, a daughter, died when still of college age, leaving him bereft of family other than possible distant relatives in Ireland where Pat grew up. He served in the military in WWII and was on Iwo Jima in the thick of it – something none of us knew until it was brought out at the memorial. We attended his wedding to a second wife, Christine, about 20 years ago, a happy event and a great marriage that lasted until a month ago when he died. The natural world lost a warrior when Pat passed away. But he did have the good sense to live to 93.

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