When do you know that you are saying goodbye for the last time?
Winter is a cold time here in San Francisco, even though we do not have the snow. It was a little colder, and quieter, this year. I’ve never been asked to write an obituary before; it wasn’t a surprise. Neither was the late news about a distant friend; but the third was a shock. People pass from this earth every day; perhaps we keep little pieces of them with us, in a way, but it’s just as likely that something leaves us when they are no longer present. Loss has lessons for us if we can sit and listen. Perhaps by writing I can glean something of meaning, something to share; someone to commemorate, to love them again beyond the boundary of their heartbeat.
These were just 3 people from my life, some closer than others. They didn’t know each other; 2 crossed paths once, briefly, at our wedding. I guess in a way everyone just shifts in and out of our lives, most of them for moments, but some for years, even our lifetime.
David, on the left, with his father and brother.
David. If it were not for the blood we shared from our common heritage, he never would have been in my life; he was my Mom’s cousin. She had babysat him in his infancy. He had a full life; he knew joy, and loss. Born while America was still struggling through the “Great Depression”, he saw his country go through tremendous challenge and change. I didn’t really know him until well into my adult life, when he and his brother invited a broad swath of cousins and kin to a reunion in San Luis Obispo. Most there were strangers to me, but I wanted to learn more about my heritage, those who came before me that I would never meet. I got to know him better when I ultimately moved nearby after my mother’s death; his family would always welcome me to Thanksgiving gatherings, with happy voices and hungry appetites all jumbled into their home, laughing, hugging, eating – the kind of family events that were not a part of my own past. When I finally found my way to slowly letting my family and friends know who I was – and I started discovering that at last breaking through shame and isolation – David and his family were my closest family support. The years passed, and his beloved wife and son were gone within weeks of one another; after a lifetime in California, he and his daughter left for new dreams in Tennessee, and I visited them once last time as they prepared for their next chapter. He gave me a Stetson cowboy hat, but more than that, he gave me unlimited acceptance. He gave the same to my husband, and I suspect he gave it to pretty much everyone who ever entered his life. We knew his eventual trickle of health concerns would inevitably grow, surge, and carry him away; he endured through one final Christmas. And now he is gone, and it seems hard to imagine a world where he isn’t still laughing and doing crosswords and ranting about news or sharing ribald stories. His voice echoes in my soul; I don’t want to stop hearing it.
I believe there is a kind of shared spirit in our blood family, but that doesn’t make our bonds with “found family” any less meaningful. One such, for me, was Jim. I have written about Jim and his husband Nile before; when I finally reached out for help to escape the cave I had slowly burrowed into within my soul, they were among the first who I told I was gay. Their lives had also been very different from my own; both had married and had children, and later left that life to be together, at high costs. They lived in Palm Springs, the closest “community” to my rural inland California home; they were older. They had supported my Dad’s cousin Bill in the final years of his life, living in the same small trailer park on limited income. When Bill passed n 2006, I still was unable to accept myself, as a gay man, as me, as just a human being himself; that time came a few years after, and they welcomed me. They had a replica of Michelangelo’s’ “David” outside their trailer festooned with beads. They were gay men of a different time, not long before mine but long enough and their paths different enough that only chance brought us together – but they loved me. They loved me, just as Mr. Rogers used to say, into being me. They didn’t try to tell me what was right for me; we didn’t see each other often, and Niles passed before I could introduce him to Bob, but every time I made it back to the desert, once or twice a year, I would stop in to see Jim; he was in his 80’s now, and parts weren’t working in him as they used to. On my last visit, I gave my number to a neighbor, knowing it might be the last time we talked; I sent a Christmas card. A few weeks after Christmas, a note came in the mail, from his daughter, to let me know he too had left this earth; I had not met her, but Jim spoke of her often. I searched for words to put into a card soon after, telling her how much the care and encouragement that Jim had offered meant to me; I am sure I was not the only one. He cared for so many in his life. I will remember him, and Nile, always.
Jim and Nile with me in Palm Springs, 2010
Dave and Jim knew their time was coming to an end; we had talked about it. But the last time I spoke with a local friend, who I had met through Bob here in SF, neither of us could have imagined it would be our final conversation. He was younger than me, seemingly in great health and spirit, in a loving marriage and with an extensive family – and suddenly, he was gone. His life could not have been more different from my own; Bob had known him for years, but we had never spent a lot of time talking one on one. He was always surrounded by friends, and it was apparent at his memorial service that his family had loved him deeply and supported him after coming out in his teen years. His life was not without difficulty or challenge by any means, but he used his intellect, and his heart, to care and to contribute to individuals in his circle and to his broader community; he did so much with his life to make a difference. I never saw him be anything more than energetic, enthusiastic and positive. At the family memorial, listening to their stories, and seeing pictures, I wonder how and by whom it is that we are granted different gifts, and I question whether my own choices were somehow irreversible signs that I could have done more, I might have chosen a different path. The silence in all their lives now that he is absent will not be soon replaced, if ever.
The same is true with every loss; every farewell. Ultimately, whether expected or abrupt, we all eventually stand at the door and walk through to what lies beyond. Sometimes we find hope picturing our loved ones reuniting, or whatever faith lies within our hearts provides some kind of assurance that they are in a better place. I don’t want to admit my uncertainty, I wish I could avoid acknowledging that I don’t have absolute assurance about those or a million other questions – simplistic answers are like children’s candy, sweet but only offering temporary solace. Instead, I look at their lives, I listen to their voices in my memory, their faces fading in and out of focus, moments of laughter and love, and I am grateful. Grateful for their gift of presence in my life, their caring; and humbled to be reminded I have that responsibility, that power to touch others. Perhaps that is why ghosts haunt us, to remind us we are still here to love one another, and that ultimately it is who and how we love that endures when we are gone, perhaps forgotten, lost to time.
These 3 caring souls now join the chorus of witnesses whose pictures still look back at me, still alive in those moments, and perhaps eternity. 3 of countless thousands that day, just the 3 that I knew in different ways and different times. Each of them touched me, and I have thought of them often in the days since I learned that their voices were now silenced; but I still hear them in my heart.
The New NormL back when he rode …. see you around the bend, friends!