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When the First Friend Goes

Friends TV Show Cast
Image: NBCUniversal

Matthew Perry’s death is a reminder of when the first in our tribes passes away, and the fragility of our friendships and mortalities.

It was the Tuesday after Memorial Day in May of 2013, and I was heading to a morning meeting after a long weekend, wishing I was still on that long weekend. I had just started working with the United Nations and climate change the month before, so I was under a lot of stress. Then a text message popped up from a high school friend. I opened it quickly, and read, “Pete died.”

I was talking to someone while I read it, and the note didn’t faze or hit me in any way. Then I opened the text again: “Pete died,”. This time I froze. It couldn’t be Pete, I thought. He wasn’t sick. Was only 49. Just saw him over the previous holiday. Something wasn’t right. So I called my friend who sent the text, and she gave me the bad news. It was Pete. He had a massive heart attack. He was the first one of us to go.

We had a group of 11 of us in high school who have remained close through our lives. Pete was the basketball player, Russ and Glenn were wrestlers, Phil played tennis, Rich swam, Kurt, Ralph and Kirk played hockey, Jim was a daredevil, I have no idea what Brooke did, and I was the class president and class clown, and the only one who was gay. We had more uproarious wild and crazy times than I could ever count or that could be retold here.

We stayed in each other’s lives. We had all been in each other’s weddings, Pete married first, his high school sweetheart, the much-loved Dana. We celebrated the arrival of each other’s kids. Vacationed with a vengeance in Vegas. Saw each other here and there during holidays or class reunions.

But we had never been to one of our funerals.

I took it upon myself to get everyone organized to return to Pittsburgh for Pete's funeral, which was on the Friday of the grief-filled week. It was painfully sad. We cried — I cried especially hard, and it was because I couldn’t get it out of my head that one of us was gone. And how our mortality was suddenly coming into question. We were all together, mourning Pete, and we haven't been together since. Will we only see each other at funerals from here on out?

Matthew Perry’s death over the weekend was shocking, yet given his history of drug and alcohol abuse and poor health, it wasn’t al,together a surprise, still so sad nonetheless. His passing is a reminder about how an era of passing begins. When the first friend dies.

Rachel, Phoebe, Monica, Chandler, Joey and Ross were a tribe. Through them, we saw our own group of friends, those that we either grew up with, fused with in college, or clicked together as young adults. The six friends were a metaphor for the unbreakable bonds of our friendships that included the usual cadre of life experiences, ups and downs, triumphs — and now tragedy.

Pete was a lot like Chandler. He had a biting, sarcastic sense of humor, but he also had an almost unnoticed cleverness that was hidden behind his zaniness. He was also like Matthew Perry in the way that both died much too young. Like Chandler and Monica’s wedding — the first among their tribe — Pete and Dana’s wedding was the first, filled with inexplicable escapades. My toothbrush comes to mind — there’s a story there, too long to tell here.

Many, if not all of us who came of age watching the show have a favorite among the six friends. Chandler was my favorite character on the show, and now that I think about it, it’s because out of the six of the TV Friends, he would have gelled perfectly with our 11. I don’t think Chandler would have had any problem fitting in. He and Pete would have been great friends.

One of the other reasons I liked Chandler was that through some of the subtext and overt text in the shows, there were flashes of suspicion about whether Chandler was gay or bi. I will confess to tuning in each week during the first couple of seasons and fantasizing about this week being the episode where Chandler comes out. Of course, it never happened, and deep down I knew it never would.

Yes, the show lacked color and diversity, although some of the episodes touched on multiplicity. The all-white cast, with virtually all white cohorts in New York City, was fiction in and of itself. NYC is a melting pot, and Friends was simply a white clump of humanity in the midst of multi-ethnicity.

Our 11 back home in suburban Pittsburgh were all white too. It wasn’t that we excluded anyone. We lived in an area that was all white. It never dawned on me, nor did I ever think about the fact that we were all white, until I started living in Washington, D.C., out of college. When I returned home, I couldn’t get over how white everything was. But that didn’t make me love my 10 best friends any less.

We all eventually separated and moved. Brooke and Ralph lived in Texas, Glenn in Seattle, Rich in North Carolina, Kirk in Kansas, Kurt in California, Phil in D.C. and Virginia, Jim in Wisconsin, Russ in Maryland, and me in NYC. Pete was the only oneof us who remained in our hometown. He was the link to our past. Anytime you went home, you knew you could go see Pete.

Friends are home to us. They are what completes us. They help form us. They are always there for us, if we’re lucky. They make us laugh and smile — even without being there. Writing about Pete’s wedding or thinking about all our craziness — Ralph driving his car into the house of one of our classmates (there were no injuries!) — still makes me laugh. They don’t need to be physically here. I can call up those memories when I feel down.

I read that Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox, Matt LeBlanc, David Schwimmer, and Perry all remained close even after the show went off the air. They came on the pop-culture scene as newcomers. They were there for each other,. They loved each other and made each other happy. They grew up together in a sense, and after the show ended, they went their separate ways, but that bond remained. Now part of that bond has disappeared.

Maybe Chandler/Perry’s death is an opportunity to appreciate the tribes in our lives. For some of us, they are right around the corner, down the street or, like Chandler, right across the hall.

For others, like me, these friends are miles away, many years separated. We are getting older,. Our lives are half over. With the passage of time, our special clique becomes more of a distant memory. It’s been 10 years since Pete’s death, and there are still 10 of us left. In some ways that makes me feel lucky, and in others I wonder anxiously who will be the next one to pass away.

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate.

Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

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John Casey

John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.
John Casey is senior editor of The Advocate, writing columns about political, societal, and topical issues with leading newsmakers of the day. The columns include interviews with Sam Altman, Neil Patrick Harris, Ellen DeGeneres, Colman Domingo, Jennifer Coolidge, Kelly Ripa and Mark Counselos, Jamie Lee Curtis, Shirley MacLaine, Nancy Pelosi, Tony Fauci, Leon Panetta, John Brennan, and many others. John spent 30 years working as a PR professional on Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the Nobel Prize-winning UN IPCC, and with four of the largest retailers in the U.S.