A Biographical Excerpt: The Best Friend & The Last Big Surprise

An excerpt adapted from the forthcoming book: Tell It Slant, a Biography by Emma Lapsansky-Werner, with Chuck Fager:

Chuck’s first grandchild was born in September 1994, and named Amber Dawn. She and her mother, Chuck’s daughter Annika, lived in Martinsburg West Virginia.

One early milestone on Amber’s road lay almost five hundred miles northeast, in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Chuck felt a need to introduce Amber to her “Uncle David” Eppers there, and time was short. David was Chuck’s best friend, and all his four children called him “Uncle David,” though there was no blood relation.

Chuck knew the clock was ticking, not least because the Pendle Hill psychic had said so.

Chuck was then on the staff at Pendle Hill, the Quaker center near Philadelphia. A woman he dated that fall had told him about the psychic. The medium was not officially recognized at Pendle Hill. In fact, her work was essentially underground. She lived somewhere in the far northeast, perhaps Rhode Island.

Traveling like an itinerant minister, she spent a week at a time in various places, hosted by a local resident, and operating from private houses. Wallingford , where Pendle hill was located, was on her “route”; clients made appointments by phone for hour-long sessions, which in 1995 were priced at $40.

Chuck scoffed when first told about this. It was not til much later he learned that in liberal Quaker circles, spiritualism had been widely popular for many decades in the nineteenth century. “Communicating” thus with the dead or distant was not a separate religion (though there were a scattered handful of Spiritualist churches). Many nineteenth century Friends regarded it as another new branch of science; participants were often called “investigators,” rather than believers.

But over time, the high percentage of exposed fakes and frauds had robbed spiritualism of scientific credibility and respectability, and it was driven to the margins. It did not disappear, however. One had to inquire; but there were still “investigators,” among Friends and others. Turning aside his doubts, the friend insisted he try it, and offered to cover the fee. So one day Chuck was driven to a modest house in a leafy suburb nearby, and knocked at the door.

In a side room the psychic sat, a very large person in a recliner. Beside her was a small tape recorder, into which she slipped a cassette; a tiny microphone was clipped to her collar. She leaned back, her eyes seemed to glaze over, and Chuck began asking questions.

He doesn’t recall much of what they talked about, and the tape recorder, when the psychic turned over the cassette, refused to restart, and she concluded the spirits did not want the latter half of the session recorded.

One part of it does linger, though: Chuck had been asking what she could sense about various people; now, speaking in as close to an expressionless tone as he could, he said, “What about my friend, David?”

The psychic seemed to squirm and shift in the recliner; her half-closed eyelids fluttered. After a moment she asked, “Has he been ill?”

“He has, um, had some health issues,” Chuck answered evenly. He had read that fake psychics try to pick up on vocal cues to create “messages,” so he tried to offer as few as possible.

She shook her head. “No, not health issues,” she said. “He’s been very sick. In fact—” she paused again, brows furrowed. “I can see he’s on the bridge . . . to the other side.”

“That . . . could be,” Chuck admitted.

“It is,” she said. “And your job now is to help him get across.”

If she gave more instructions, they are lost, as is the half-blank audio cassette. And as to the psychic, Chuck remains something of an agnostic: yet strange things do happen sometimes; there are people who have unusual gifts.

Besides, he already knew that David was on that “bridge,” hard as it might be to face the fact.

Chuck and David had been friends since 1966; long enough that David had held not only baby Amber, at a month old, but had held her mother as an infant too. He had been diagnosed with an aggressive lung cancer in 1991, and was then given only months to live. Defying the forecast, though, he was still around almost four years later.

As the seasons passed after his diagnosis, Chuck and his other friends became habituated to doing things with David “for the last time,” such as their annual Hearts-Messiah card tournament, then doing them again a year later; and then again. It made denial easy.

But though David’s wit, gift with children, and knack for beating everyone at Hearts persisted, his stamina waned. And a year earlier, driving with Chuck in his car, David had asked, feigning insouciance, “So, uh, what do you think happens when we die?”

Chuck hesitated, and cleared his throat.

“Um — how the hell would I know?” he admitted.

David was indignant: “What? You’re the one who went to bleeping Harvard bleeping Divinity School; didn’t they teach you about all that?”

Chuck snickered ruefully. “Sure. But I skipped that class; we were at a peace protest, or something.”

David thumped the steering wheel in disgust. “So what bleeping good is your bleeping divinity degree?”

Chuck was defensive: “You know I didn’t graduate. I think the answer to that was printed on the diploma.”

“Yeah,” David scoffed. “You know they’re all in Latin anyway.”

Chuck was ready: “Right. An alum told me it translates as, “Hey, we’ve got your money. Now just Carpe the bleeping diem, sucker.”

On his next visit, David had privately asked him, more soberly, “How do you think you know, when you’ve moved from living with a terminal disease, to dying from a terminal disease?”

Chuck had no quip in reply; but it was clear David’s condition had crossed that threshold.

In late February 1995, Chuck was told by a friend in Massachusetts that a big surprise birthday party was being planned for David there in March. Chuck resolved to come, and to bring Annika and baby Amber. The child might not remember the occasion; but the visit to the psychic suggested that communication between people occurs in unexpected and invisible ways.

And soon the day came when Amber was brought into his David’s crowded, jumbled living room in Marblehead. David was spending most of his waking hours swaddled in blankets in a big armchair. In the kitchen, the fridge and freezer were full of frozen dinners, gathering frost or sprouting mold; David wasn’t eating much.

Amber and “Uncle David,” March 1995; the second and final time they met, in this incarnation . . .

Amber was then very clingy, recoiling from strangers and holding tight to Annika. But when handed to David, she did not hesitate, went right to him as if she’d known him forever. In a moment she was leaning against his ravaged chest, nuzzling and, it seemed clear, bonding in some way. (Chuck has a picture to prove he didn’t imagine this.)

Soon it was on to the surprise party. A pair of local friends picked up David and chauffeured him around town for a few hours while the final preparations were made; then everyone hid in the large darkened room in the community center where he had worked for a number of years.

The door opened and the friends brought him in. The lights flicked on, all shouted “Surprise!” and David reeled back in apparent shock.

Then he shuffled up to the front of the room. The day had been cold. He unzipped a heavy jacket, and dropped it onto a chair. Under it was a white sweatshirt; he unzipped that too, and slowly turned around, so his back was to the group.

Then they saw, on the back of the sweatshirt: big block letters in several colors:

WHAT?

A SURPRIZE PARTY

FOR ME ?

ON 3-18-95?

NO WAY !

In a moment, they were all laughing hysterically. It was so David: someone had spilled the beans to him, and he had mustered enough energy to pull a surprise birthday prank on the birthday surprise.

David died less than a month later. Another call brought Chuck up again to Marblehead. Along with Henry Bloom, a school friend from his home town in Buffalo, New York, and some locals, Chuck spent a long weekend cleaning out David’s uber-hoarder apartment, in advance of a memorial service, which Chuck was asked to conduct.

The place was a monument to disorganization. David had always worked hard; but he never figured out how to manage money.  For years, he had a side gig delivering newspapers, for which he collected many cash payments.

Several times when Chuck was there, he came in from work, pockets bulging with change. He’d reach his hands in, bring them out dripping quarters, dimes and pennies, and hurl the money across the room, to spray and bounce off walls and furniture, and repeat the volleys til his pockets were empty. And he left the coins  scattered there. By the time the cleanup crew was done, they had largely filled one of those jumbo pickle jars, with several hundred dollars worth.

Also on the floor were scores, maybe hundreds of envelopes. From among them the friends made a collection of utility shutoff notices – telephone, gas, water, lights —plenty to cover a trifold display board, which was set up along with all the photos and mementos for the memorial. Despite their loyalty and love, they weren’t there to deny or disguise the troubles David had had.

Among other debris several cassette tapes turned up. One stopped Chuck cold: it featured a performance of Johannes Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody. David had not mentioned it, but Chuck knew the piece, because of the key role it had played in preventing the writer William Styron from committing suicide.

In a deep fit of depression. Styron had obtained a shotgun, and made a plan to drive to a secluded spot to use it. But on the way, the car radio played the Alto Rhapsody.  On hearing its melancholy beauty (none of the classical masters does melancholy like Brahms), Styron turned around, drove home and went into life-saving treatment instead. His 1990 best-selling memoir Darkness Visible told the story. Did David know all this?

Chuck kept one other tape for some years; it was of a short piano piece David had composed, and played for him during  a visit. Chuck recalls the title as A Winter Solstice.

The memorial went off as planned, in an old austere Universalist church. So many people; Chuck doesn’t remember what he said.

Not far away, down by the waterfront in Marblehead, there’s a park, with benches. David liked to sit there in fair weather, watching the sea wash the beach. Now a  bench has his name on it, and that’s where his ashes were scattered. (But don’t tell the cops;  they say it’s not allowed.)

A stretch of beach in Marblehead

For some years, David occasionally visited Chuck in dreams; he was always still sick, yet somehow surviving. But then one night in the mid-2000s he came and said it was time for him to be moving on, somewhere else.

Where?

Maybe the Pendle Hill psychic would know.

3 thoughts on “A Biographical Excerpt: The Best Friend & The Last Big Surprise”

  1. Hi Chuck, I had no idea (or had forgotten) you had a Buffalo connection. Henry Bloom, whom you mentioned, was two years ahead of me at Park School and his sister Ellen was in my class.
    When I have time, I enjoy reading your Friendly Letter.

    1. Touche to my friend and neighbor, Rich! I had forgotten your Buffalo connection as well, and never knew of Chuck’s, nor of your friendship with him. My connection is that my son in law, Brian Kress, is from Buffalo and I’ve enjoyed some visits there at his mother’s home. It was my first introduction to the rolling Niagra River and the American side of Niagra Falls. I had seen the Canadian side. Also we had a good tour of downtown historic Buffalo by his mother and brother, proud lifelong residents of Buffalo.

  2. As usual, Chuck I loved your story of a friendship, a beloved uncle, and even some words about Marblehead, where my brother has lived for 40 years and I’ve enjoyed in many ways. I’m so sorry for your loss and thanks for sharing your story.

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