Scattering the ashes of a friend is not my preferred way to spend a sunny afternoon. And yet there was camaraderie and healing in it last Saturday, when Allysen and I joined with my friend’s family and another friend in saying good-bye to Gene Soccolich, who died a week ago of heart failure.
I first met Gene in 1973, when I was heading to the University of Rhode Island to attend a one-year graduate program called Master of Marine Affairs. A mutual friend put us in touch, because Gene was doing the same thing. We rented a place together in Jamestown, RI, on an island in the mouth of Narragansett Bay. For nine months, we lived in one of the nicest places I’ve ever lived in—a glass-fronted summer home overlooking the water, with spectacular sunsets behind the bridge to the mainland. There I introduced him to Star Trek reruns (which did not entirely take), and he introduced me to Pink Floyd’s Meddle album (which did). I sometimes kept him awake typing on my portable typewriter—at least at first, and then he started waking up if I wasn’t typing. He liked to tell people of the time he lay awake waiting for the typing to resume: After a minute of silence, he heard a single keystroke, and then, “Shit!” (I was a poor typist.)
In the years that followed, I went on to become a struggling writer, and he worked first in state government, and then in the high-tech computer industry. Oddly, he barely knew how to turn on a computer himself, though he facilitated million-dollar deals involving the technology. His expertise was in making such deals, which he did by getting people to talk to each other about what they really needed in a product, service, or business partner. He had a remarkable ability to cut through the B.S. (though he could sling a pretty good line of it himself when he wanted to).
He was married for a time, and had three great kids, all adult now. We used to see them during happier days, and then for a time we didn’t. Gene’s later health and financial troubles brought me back in touch with his kids, which is one of the things I’m most grateful for, here at the end.
Gene had lousy genes, when it came to cardiovascular issues. His first heart operation in his forties was just the start. By the end, he’d had his aorta replaced with a Dacron tube, after a ballooning aneurism threatened to drop him in his tracks. (His sister Christina, a rising literary star, had her own career cut short by a brain aneurism that robbed her of the ability to write.) Divorce, loss of work, poor health, and depression led to a very difficult life for Gene in the last ten or fifteen years.
But even while drawing inward and becoming ever more isolated, Gene began writing a novel. Initially he titled it American Spit, but later changed it to Waking Up Down East, which I thought was better, more reflective of the book’s redemptive ending. He asked me long ago if I would please try to find a way to get it into print, if he was gone before he did it himself. I said I would, so that’s something I’ll be working on in the future.
In meantime, though, it was uplifting and healing to spend time with his two sons and one daughter, his sister, and his other good friend Bruce. His ashes went to sea from a gorgeous outlook on the coast north of Boston. Gene always loved the sea, and it seemed a fitting place to say good-bye. Godspeed, old friend.