What I did on my summer vacation

Cue Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died.”

It began on my way to the bus, with a phone call from my oldest, dearest friend, Meghan, who, through static interference and intermittent service, told me that our friend Q had died. For some reason I continually misunderstood her – I kept asking “who?” – for some reason I couldn’t understand, or perhaps comprehend – what she was telling me.

At Q’s wake, friend after friend stood up and held forth about his eccentricities, his infallible sense of humor, his amazing ability to build and fix anything, and a few even crowed their triumphs at getting back at him with their own practical jokes. A true fool, there will never be another like Q. It didn’t hit me that he was really gone until I saw the bag of his ashes, pulled from the special plastic box in which they had been shipped, and tied with a round metal dogtag embossed with his full name. A few of his friends had the wherewithal to assemble small packets of wildflower seeds, with instructions to spread the seeds in the shape of a “Q” in honor of his love of the outdoors – “agrarian graffiti” they called it. I took my seed packet and lined up to receive the communion of Q’s bones, and I sobbed as Billy opened the bag and poured his ashes into my cupped hand, the reality of his gone-ness hitting me “full tilt boogie,” as Q himself would say.

Q Card and Envelope

Thus began a summer of endless lame mortal surprises. Next came my cousin Bruce, whose death from cancer was inevitable, came surprisingly quickly, and despite the fact that I was aware that he was ill and had been talking to the people who lived near him (my brother, his wife Judy) I curiously didn’t find out about his death until a week after his passing. His memorial service was a celebration of his life told through slides, stories, and a train ride at the Western Railway Museum in Solano County, California.

I knew that he loved trains, and that he had a miniature working trainset in his house that he spent years building, but I really didn’t understand to what extent until his memorial. I learned that he knew more about trains and the impact of rail travel on California history than pretty much anyone. His wife Judy, my cousin, put together a lovely afternoon of a slideshow, speeches, and lunch, and the memorial ended with a ride on Bruce’s favorite, an electric train, restored with all the original accoutrements, that originally took commuters over the Bay Bridge in the middle of the 20th century. Judy is unflinchingly stoic and optimistic, despite having watched her husband succumb to the ravages of cancer, and I don’t think she’s lying. If I could be even half as strong as her in my daily life I’d be a powerhouse. It’s strange and enlightening what you can find out about people you thought you knew after they pass into not-ness – their effect on others continues on even after their own activity has been halted.

True to the perfect essay, this story has a third character, a friend and former co-worker, Marc, who died unexpectedly despite a long, heroic battle with lung cancer – one that we all thought he was winning. Marc was kind, generous, brilliant, and unnervingly zen. At Marc’s funeral I cried for the huge emptiness he left behind, but I was crying more for his family, really – his father and brother, and his new wife of less than a year.

When we all lined up at the gravesite to take turns shoveling dirt onto his casket, I eschewed the shovel for my bare hands. The dirt felt good – cool on a blazingly hot day – and it seemed a fitting tribute to get down in it, my hands dirty, the loamy smell of the soil drifting up through the shimmering heat. Though I had never met him before, I longed to say something to Marc’s father, anything I could to help shepherd him through this awful time. I bravely approached him, gave him a hug and somehow tried to impart some comfort. As I walked away my sobs boiled up from a place that was becoming achingly familiar.

Also like in a perfect essay, each one of these people was vibrant and full of life – a cliché heard at funerals and in movies, but really true in all cases. Although Q had spent the last few years of his life drinking himself into oblivion, he was still the funniest, most eccentric, creative person that I’ve yet to meet. Bruce was one of those geniuses that mastered anything he put his mind to, had a wry sense of humor and didn’t suffer fools. And Marc, the youngest at 37, still had so much to do in this world. [Cue Billy Joel’s “Only The Good Die Young”.] It’s impossible to grasp the “not-ness” of someone who was once so present.

Throughout the summer I never felt like this succession of sad coincidences was about me. My sadness during all the funerals and memorial services has been for those truly close to the deceased – not that I wasn’t – but true to form, I’ve always felt like an outsider, and this was no exception. I mean, I had my moments of closeness with each of these people, but had never managed a sustained intimacy that I feel allowed me the type of gut-wrenching grief that those much closer to them must have felt. Of course I’m sad that they’re gone, but I also am getting through my daily life without feeling lead weight of grief around my shoulders. Despite the shitty summer, I feel fine. I regret not feeling as if I really got to know each person well enough that their passing would have been a shattering occurrence.

But I admit that I’ve also wondered if there isn’t something going on here. Is the universe trying to tell me something, or is there something to be learned from having three people pass on in close succession? The atheist in me says “no,” that it’s just a coincidence. It is what it is. But part of me has begun wondering if some higher power (ick) is trying to tell me something, that I’m being nudged awake with a sharp spiritual stick. I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to awaken to. I mean, there’s gotta be a message here somewhere, right? Or is it simply the way the dice rolled this time around?

On the other hand, there has always been a part of me that feels a strange surge of optimism each time someone close to me dies, because a part of me really believes that I’ll see that person again, that their absence in my life is only temporary. Perhaps it’s just the guileless optimist in me that fools myself into thinking that there is some spiritual thread that runs through the universe. Or perhaps I’m able to tuck away the person in a special corner and visit them whenever I need to.

Some say that people live on in the memory of others, but somehow that seems too simple and somehow disappointing. Of course we all want to make our impact on human history, but I like to think that we actually make an impact that goes deeper than memory. Like the law of thermodynamics that states that there is only a finite amount of energy in the universe, perhaps when someone dies, the energy that once was a discrete form gets released back into the universe and recycled into other beings.

I think that I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about death – a morbid thought wanders into my head, seeps through the cracks and settles in like a chill. I fight it off like swatting at a fly that I can never seem to catch and, well, kill. Often they’re fears that someone close to me will die, or that I’ll die before I’ve had a chance to do everything I want to do in this lifetime. These thoughts don’t drag me down – on the contrary, I feel like a pretty happy person – but rather it’s an awareness of other possibilities that papers the walls like an ugly pattern I’ve learned to ignore.

I’ve noticed that through all the turmoil I’ve found a zen of my own. With each funeral or memorial service, some of those sharp edges of fear have been ground down to a smooth sheen upon which I’ve floated through the summer, able to live through and with the reality that yet another person is gone.

Late in the summer during a backpacking trip Tim and I took to celebrate our 1st wedding anniversary, I spread Q’s ashes & wildflower seeds in the shape of a Q in a redwood forest. Someday, perhaps next summer, I’ll return to the same spot to see if the flowers took hold. I wondered as we hiked through the forest looking for the perfect spot, “Is he here with us now? Does he know that we all really miss him?” My guileless optimist muse said yes, and put images in my head of his ghost following us down the trail, laughing at some practical joke that only he knows, and that we’ll come to understand much, much later.


13 responses to “What I did on my summer vacation”

  1. j-man — thanks for this tribute to fallen friends, moving but not overly sentimental, a tough note to strike. i think a lot about death too, fwiw. maybe it’s just part of being biblically middle-aged. i’d love to live to be 108, but even then, would i be worrying everyday about what would be left unfinished? i like how Q’s friends took action w/ his remains.

    sorry you had so much hit you in such quick succession. bw

  2. ssw says:

    Jen, what a beautiful, thought-provoking post. Thank you for that.

    I wanted to add that of course people have very different needs, desires and experiences, and you can only really find out for yourself what you find comforting, or what you want to choose to believe in, and it may change over time. There is a poem I found many years ago that relates to this:

    To me Istanbul was only a name
    Until a picture you took of the Blue Mosque came
    I don’t receive postcards from heaven
    showing St. Peter at Prayer
    But oh that place is real enough
    now that you are there

    I think it’s a lovely little poem, and at least one underlying sentiment is that your perspective about death may alter substantially, depending on the loss you have sustained. For some people, believing in an after-life offers hope and comfort from which may be really helpful, even if it’s just to be able to feel better during the rest of your own life. It’s hard that the older we get, the more we have to deal with death in people we are close to, and it can be really frightening and overwhelming to even think about, let alone live through. Lots to think about here.

  3. AW says:

    I was very moved by this piece: compelling subject matter that is written about very well. I am sorry for your loss.

    The questions you raise in your tenth paragraph about meaning are things I grapple with, too: “Is the universe trying to tell me something, . . . I mean, there’s gotta be a message here somewhere, right? Or is it simply the way the dice rolled this time around?” I confess, in the same way, to never being quite sure if there is meaning in the way life unfolds or if I attach meaning afterward in an attempt to make sense of things. Or maybe it doesn’t matter: whether the meaning is sent from a higher power or one I make myself, if it enables me to live a life more fully, is that OK?

    Whatever the case, your sense-making of the loss of these three people has enriched my life today–and perpetuated the meaning of their lives. Thank you.

  4. jeremy says:

    it’s an awareness of other possibilities that papers the walls like an ugly pattern I’ve learned to ignore.

    wow, quite a line… like most people, i suspect, i live in constant denial of the inevitable, that “ugly pattern I’ve learned to ignore.”

    a devastating, lovely post, jen.

  5. Dave says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, Jen. It sounds like a hard summer.

    Is the universe trying to tell me something, or is there something to be learned from having three people pass on in close succession?

    As someone who doesn’t believe in a teleological universe or a big intelligence behind it all, I’d go with the latter. I think we spend a lot of energy avoiding the reality of death — our own inevitable death as well as the deaths of those we love. When we’re confronted with death in a way we can’t avoid, we can use the moment to stop avoiding, to integrate more reality into our lives by mourning the person we’ve lost and recognizing that everything changes and passes away.

  6. Jen says:

    Dave and Bryan, your comments about leaving things unfinished and integrating more reality into our lives really make sense. I like the idea that it doesn’t really matter how or why these things happen, it’s more about what we do with them and how we deal with the after effects – how we move on – that is important.
    And Jeremy and others, thanks for the comments as well.

  7. Kate The Great says:

    I have no experience of death. My grandparents are all very alive and there have been no close, personal accidents of any sort near my life. I don’t know anyone dying of cancer; my parents had friends who have died of cancer, but I didn’t go through any sort of mourning process for them.

    I’m strangely concerned about this. I am familar with the descriptions that other people relate of their grief, but I suspect I don’t really know what it is. A part of me tells me it’s because I’m relatively young (22), and death happens more often to people in the middle of their lives, but another part of dismisses this every time it comes up in committee.

    And then there’s a friend of mine whom I’ve lost contact with for years now. Something told me suddenly one morning in the shower that she was dead, but I have way of confirming this, and thus I think about her nearly every day when I’m in the shower. I used to mourn for her, but now I wonder what she’s doing, where she’s living, who she’s in love with…

    Yes, death is a mystery to me.

  8. Kate The Great says:

    That’s “but I have no way of confirming this”.

  9. Beth W says:

    Jen, I’m so sorry for your loss. You wrote a lovely tribute.

    I feel quite the opposite of Kate. All of my grandparents have died as well as other close friends and family. I was trying to decide if you are lucky Kate, and for the most part I would say yes. You are lucky to still have people important to you alive. It’s something to be grateful for. One person’s experience can’t (shouldn’t) really be compared to another’s. The sum of our experiences, including death, shape how we see the world and people around us.

    My book club is reading Ulysses this year, in three installments. I’ve only made it through the first 7 chapters and one meeting. I actually don’t know if I’ll ever finish since I can’t attend the remaining meeting. I was impressed by chapter two (when Stephen is walking on the beach) and what I interpreted as a description of the state of the grieving mind. Joyce captured the intensity of feeling separate yet hyper aware of every interaction. I don’t think anyone else in book club had the same interpretation. Each person approached the book from their own base of experience.

  10. Not sure how or where else to post this sad news, but our friend John (as in John and Shelley) lost his mom to a hit and run driver yesterday. She was walking near her home in a SLC suburb. You can find more here and here. Our collective condolences go out to John, his sister & dad, and to Shelley and Emmett.

  11. Mark says:

    Oh man that’s really sad. Horrible that people could even do that sort of thing and live with themselves.

  12. JJ says:

    Is the universe trying to tell you something? Some would say stress is making you retreat to the imaginary. But I would say it is an astute person indeed who begins to sense and respond to something more.

    Take for example babies. Gradually they become aware that someone is caring for them. They begin to associate parents with food, warmth, and care. At first is a basic linkage –mom gives me my bottle, but as the child matures he also realizes, gee, Mom pays the mortgage. A whole new level. It is so with us and our awareness of what’s really there.

    Most people reach a point where they are aware that there is a higher power. When that awareness comes, they choose what to do with it. Moving towards faith is hard, but it is also hard to constantly “write off” our awareness –a betrayal of sense and self.

  13. JJ says:

    Excuse me, I failed to acknowledge the terrible news posted in comment 10. So sorry.