Biff America: Lost for words in tough times |

Biff America: Lost for words in tough times

I was writing a difficult letter to a remarkable man.

He was confined to a hospital bed. At his age and condition, there are many variables. It would be a week before I could comfortably travel to see him. Family members told me to visit sooner, not later.

He once could be described by the old trope “master of the universe.” He was an Ivy League undergraduate and attended Harvard Law before joining a major corporation and working and living all over the world.

Despite his credentials, not once has he ever made me feel anything but proud of my position and my place. He has never talked down to me and will even occasionally ask for my advice — mostly about knife-throwing and lock-picking.

He had witnessed many changes in the corporate world during his tenure — much of it bad.

Decades ago, we were canoeing one early morning on Dillon Reservoir when he mentioned that retirement was in his sights. He said the business world had transformed to a place where he did not feel comfortable with the moving morality.

We got off the water and — this being before we all had cellphones — asked if we could stop in at a phone booth so he could check in with his secretary. I waited in my truck, and when he returned, he looked worried and asked where he could buy a Wall Street Journal. We drove in silence while he read about some malfeasance at the corporation where he worked. He was not at all implicated, but he was named as someone who would be called upon to put out the fire.

My then girlfriend, now wife and I were living in a studio apartment. He asked if he could use our landline since it was closer than his hotel in Vail.

In those days, if you subscribed to Sports Illustrated, they gave you a small phone shaped like a tennis shoe. It was called a sneaker phone. The apartment was so small that there was no place Ellie and I could go to give him privacy, so we listened as he conferenced, on the sneaker, with folks in New York, coordinating the media response and where the corporate jet could pick him up to take him back to the East Coast.

He put out the fire, but after that, it seemed like business life lost its luster. He was an unflinchingly moral man and could not be part of a world where ethics were based on not getting caught.

A few weeks later, Ellie and I made him a mixtape with music that we thought he could play in his car after a hard day at work. He later told us the cut of Bill & Bonnie Hearne singing “New Mexico Rain” helped him make it to retirement.

I’ve been drinking all day with a man at the bar. He sure seems unhappy to me.

“He said he’s going nowhere and going there fast. He envies this life that I lead.

“Well if I had the money, I tell you honey, I’d keep him from going insane.

“There’s one thing for sure, Lord there ain’t no cure, like a walk in the Mexico rain.”

He retired but could not seem to be idle. Boards, nonprofits and worthy causes took much of his time and money. He continued to travel the world, but now with his wife and family. I spoke to him last summer, and he seemed to be well and healthy. This winter, he took a series of falls. Each tumble took away from his balance and awareness. He is now in an assisted living facility and cannot walk. Some issues with his brain might need surgery. The prognosis ranges from months of physical therapy to an even less rosy eventuality.

The past few terrible months of this man’s life are a drop in the bucket of his joy and accomplishment of over 80 years. I’d hoped to convey that in the letter I was writing, but I’m sure the last few months are fresh in his mind. His vision has deteriorated, so his daughter promised to read my letter to him. But as I began typing, I was at a loss. Nothing I could say would lessen his fear and uncertainty. Nothing I could write would lower his sense of helplessness.

All I could say was that he is remarkable and loved.

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