Under a Steel-Gray Sky

Two days ago I slipped in some mud while carrying my kayak up a hill. I caught myself, but in doing so I seem to have hurt something deep in my right shoulder. Since then the right side of my torso has ached.

This morning, at the suggestion of my Beloved Spouse, I went outside to sit in the hot tub by our pool. I am not really a hot tub guy – I have probably used it a dozen times in as many years – but she thought the heat and bubble jets might help lessen my shoulder pain.

So I sat in the steaming water under a steel-gray sky; to my surprise, my thoughts turned to an old friend.


Doug and I went to boarding school together. We got to know each other through rowing; he was a big, athletic guy – a gentle giant. Though we were two years apart, we became fast friends.

For we were nurs’d upon the self-same hill, 

Fed the same flock, by fountain, shade, and rill; 

— John Milton 


We visited each other’s homes – not a small thing when you’re in boarding school – and got to know each other’s families. One time I took him sailing on my family’s small boat in a heavy gale. We both loved the excitement of crashing through the waves.

We went to different colleges but stayed in close touch. Afterward, we took very different paths. I headed to New York and a job in finance; he to Los Angeles to become a writer.

We saw each other sporadically for another ten or fifteen years. He was an usher in my wedding; I went to his, too, but the Beloved had to attend a funeral that day. On the rare occasions when business brought me to LA, we would get together for dinner.

At one of those dinners he told me that after years of living in penury, he had given up on trying to write The Great American Novel, and had sold his soul, receiving a very good price in the bargain. He had co-written a #1 movie. Now he was having a ball co-writing another movie (which would also be #1). His days were spent pool-side at his and his wife’s new home, writing and savoring their turn of fortune.

That’s the image of him that came to mind this morning as I sat in my hot tub.


I tried to get back in touch with Doug last year. I had always assumed that we would resume our friendship once I had a little more time, and after the sale of our business in late 2014, the timing seemed right. What I learned, to my shock and sorrow, was that both he and his wife had recently passed away; she by cancer, he by a heart attack while on the beach with his children.


One of my great joys in life is that I have many friends – people about whom I care deeply, and who care about me.

I reproach myself for having let my friendship with Doug lapse, though – especially for having been so distant as to have not known that his wife had passed; if I had been a better friend to him I would have stayed in closer touch, inconvenience be damned, and given him some love in his time of sorrow.

Our friends each own pieces of us, and we of them. There’s no excuse for letting go.


M.H. Johnston

6 comments to Under a Steel-Gray Sky

  • Vivian Wadlin  says:

    We have all let relationships lapse. Thank you for reminding me that it is time to reach out to Doreen, Eileen, Ken, George, Lou, Lorraine…. and oh, so many others! How fortunate to have a waiting list. 🙂

  • John  says:

    Family, friends, and (limited) time is all we really have. A great reminder to not squander any of them. Thanks.

  • Josh Lewis  says:

    This is my very favorite of your many posts. In fact, there is not a runner up.

  • Anonymous  says:

    Your wisdom and honesty are a reminder of the reason I enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for being a voice not just for yourself but for your friends and readers alike.

    • Ron Cypers  says:

      My comment, didn’t want to go anonymous…

  • Kevin  says:

    Thank you Mark.
    The long overdue call to action I needed to mend some fences which I accomplished last week.

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