One of my closest friends died last week. We had known each other for almost 18 years, having met as students at Queen’s when I was in 1st year and he was in 2nd. For my last year of four in Belfast, we were flatmates but long before that we had become close. Queen’s by the demographics of its student population falls quiet at weekends but Paddy Gallagher and I were one of the small number who hung around the campus on those days, filling the time with trips into town, exploring a nightscape that was often half-empty as the city recovered from the Troubles.
I found University to be too stop-start for any proper engagement with studies. But in terms of the friendships I forged, those years were some of the best and my friendship with Paddy was one of best friendships I had or have had since. He was one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. He was supremely intelligent and we had some terrific conversations. A law graduate, he also had a keen interest in astronomy and had recently applied to do a masters in astro physics through the Open University.
Male friendship never falls or rises on the basis of proper, two-way conversation. It’s the unsaid words that cement male friendships – you don’t say anything because whatever needs to be said has already been implied.
On one of the last occasions I saw Paddy, I was at a low point, for a number of reasons. It was the weekend before Christmas last and a group of us had arranged to call to his flat. After the others had left, I hung on for an hour and talked to him about what was on my mind. He didn’t offer any real advice but he listened intently and that was enough. I will never have the opportunity to thank him for hearing me out that day; he will never know how much he helped. The last time I saw him was about a month later; a backwards glance and a quick goodbye out of a car window. It happens like that, seeing someone for the last time – it assumes an importance only in retrospect.
Paddy had suffered from ill-health his entire life but his death was an accident; that makes it harder to bear, most of all for his family. For all the problems he had, he had the sunniest of dispositions. His last words to his family, written down because he couldn’t speak, were “happy days” – a phrase I heard him say over and over.
Because I didn’t make it to his bedside before he died, I’m left with this nagging feeling that I owe Paddy a debt that can never now be paid, but that is too selfish a feeling. Sometimes what we rage against the most are those things that we cannot control. And so it is with the unexpected death of a close friend.
The best I can do is to take to heart what Henry David Thoreau wrote:
“On the death of a friend, we should consider that the fates through confidence have devolved on us the task of a double living, that we have henceforth to fulfil the promise of our friend’s life also, in our own, to the world.”
I will miss his laugh – it could reach into the corners of the largest of rooms. I will miss his raging intellect and his sense of justice. I will miss the way he would be the first to cut through the spin that characterises modern politics and media to see what was really meant. I will miss those days in and nights out we can never have. I will miss him. He was a friend of mine.