New York, Nu York: Ode to a Friend

Many times when I sit down to write my blogs for the Jerusalem Post, I have let the themes and ideas percolate in my mind, and then I write eagerly and rapidly, trying to keep up with my thoughts. This time is somewhat different; I had wanted to write this essay a few days ago but the topic felt too raw. I debated not even writing this. Now, finally, I feel the need to do so.
An old friend of mine died very unexpectedly. I had known Neil since high school; we went to different schools in NYC (I attended Edward R Murrow High School, he went to Brooklyn Technical High School, aka "Tech") but we had a mutual friend, Arlene. We all shared a love for music and pop culture, and we went to concerts, bought records together (remember those?) and hung out. My younger brother became friendly with Neil when they both attended Brooklyn College. Neil transferred later on to Howard University, a prestigious, historically Black college, and thrived there. But wherever he went, Neil made lots of friends, and had many different circles of friends.
Perhaps because he was an only child (although a few years ago I found out that he had a much-older half brother) he pushed himself to be an outgoing, energetic presence. He had many different interests, was well spoken and enthusiastic, and people gravitated to him.
I would never saw we were super close, but  we heard from each other occasionally and then with the advent of Facebook, he was one of several old friends with whom I reconnected. And last year, my brother and I, along with some other friends, joined Neil for his 50th birthday celebration at a Crown Heights, Brooklyn bar-restaurant. It was so nice to see him and meet friends of his I had known, as well as others I did not.
During the past few years, Neil (who was not Jewish) and I had some conversations about Jewish topics. One time he told me about a former synagogue he had noticed, not far from his home in East Flatbush. Sent me the address; it was a former synagogue that I had not documented previously, so I was quite appreciative. He also told me about a few others which I did know about, and I thanked him as well. Then one time he told me that he been jogging in Crown Heights (he loved to jog and ran a few marathons) and noticed plant branches in stacks; were they part of a religious ritual, he wanted to know. Yes, I told him, they were used for the Sukkot holiday. And he was supposed to attend our first Passover seder last year, and I was so eager to host him, but he got into a car accident on the way to my house! He was stuck in the shop, sadly!
Then last week, I went on Facebook to read a news story, and discovered that Neil had died.
It turned out that he was on vacation in Grenada, and at a beach he and his friend were caught in a strong current. He drowned. This made the local news there, apparently.
So many of us have been greatly saddened and shocked. Here was a robust guy, only 51 years old, felled by Mother Nature. Neil is not the only contemporary of mine who has died, but the others typically were sick with cancer for a while, or some other chronic health problem.
How do we deal with a friend's untimely death? We are grappling with this. I know this is not the most unusual problem in the world, but it has weighed on my mind, and on the minds of many of my friends. We miss you Neil, and wish you were still with us.