The first experience I had with death came glued to a window at age five. My beloved dog, a lab-collie mix who was a puppy with me, left the house with my dad on a rainy night. “Put to sleep” was the term my parents used to comfort me. As the rain pattered against the glass, I dutifully waited for one of the blurry headlights passing by our house that night to become my dad, returning in the Pontiac station wagon, absent my lifelong friend. His arrival marked death. Silent and sad, I went up to my room to sleep, uncomforted.
Five years later, my dad cried — perhaps for the first time in front of me — in telling his kids his father had died. Several states distant, I had only met the man a few times. It was sad, but I thought little of my dad’s disappearance for a few days to attend the funeral.
However, within a year, my grandmother died, too. This news hit me hard. I don’t know why, since I knew her no more than my grandfather. Maybe it was panic from losing half a generation in such a short span. Maybe it was the way her eyes and heart reflected in her son, my dad. Maybe it is a fault of memory, and I was reacting to my dad’s tears for her, now attributed to the death of my grandfather. Whatever the cause, I responded to my parents’ decision to fly to the funeral without us by taking turns with my sister ruining a car ride for a vacationing family, neighbors driving north to Wisconsin accompanied by borrowed tears.
Though not my decision, I regret not attending that funeral.
Tragedy was largely held at bay during my childhood. Few pets died. Even a potentially fatal accident with my mom and sister simply turned our Subaru into a new car, planting a highway sign warning future truck drivers of the danger of a hidden driveway. It wasn’t until my twenty-somethings that death again passed close enough to shake me.
My maternal grandfather and a college friend died seven years apart. In both cases, there were opportunities to talk, to meet before the moment. I can’t remember the final conversations beyond a desire to will death away by making plans. I tried to get Grampy to come to my graduation, still seven months away. With Scott, I tried to make fantasy sports trades, a favorite topic of conversation when he was alive. Those final exchanges echo as mistakes, gently dismissed. Death did not relent, not even when I confronted it in the moment.
With each successive death of a relative, or the death of a friend’s relative, or the death of a friend, I feel less equipped to confront the news or the moment. I don’t know the words. I don’t have deep pockets. I don’t have a fix. I am often far away. Perhaps worst of all, any expression of love feels hollow, for if that love were true, wouldn’t I have visited more?
Each of these has a logical counter, of course, intended to make it okay for me to make it okay for those whose love is true. Depression, though, doesn’t deal in logic and never will. It intends to circle endlessly, looking on the ground for the doorways. When death spurs my depression, that march is debilitating.
Just over a year ago, the father of a good friend died. His death came after a long battle with cancer, unknown to me. My response was outwardly minimal. It was minimal, despite a friendship that actively transcended childhood into parenthood. This should have been a low bar for compassion, and — given the rarity of my direct interaction with his father — low emotional risk, especially compared to the loss my friend feels.
Maybe it was the panic from losing too many of my own father’s generation in such a short span. Maybe it was a strong memory of loving family moments between this man and his son, my friend, who continued to kiss each other goodbye as they grew older. Maybe it was the aggregation of death that had confused me throughout my life. Whatever the cause, I cried silently, shaken into a cycle of inaction, and my response was minimal.
Though mostly my decision, I regret not attending that service.
Last week, death came in a now familiar form, as a post on Facebook. Awake as scheduled for an early-morning work session, I ran quickly through my social media haunts until I read:
“One of my best friends from high school is dead. I don’t even… Ican’t even….”
This friend of a friend was my friend, too. His death was unexpected, inconvenient, momentous, confusing. And it stopped my world.
Fortunately for me, minimal is all we can do on Facebook. Post short statements of concern and support, perhaps with a photo or two. Like, for solidarity. Minimal is acceptable as we wait for more news. It is possible that’s also my limit.
I have known Tim since around the time my dad’s father died. We played soccer together in a city youth league long before such things were common in America. It was my only formal soccer experience, but it was a good one. The Orange Crush had a ringer for a coach, a foreign exchange student who taught a bunch of 10-year-olds how to stay in lanes and pass. If we lost a game that season, it didn’t register.
On different sides of the literal railroad track, Tim and I wouldn’t meet again until high school. For four years, I saw him perform as a singer and actor. I served as a lesser known brother to his Joseph, illustrating the difference in our musical gifts. Along the way, there were movies, parties and softball games. I was envious for his dates and happier for his humor. When I married, Tim sang “Wonderful Tonight” with some other veterans of his rock-star a cappella group, the Eight of Us.
Without Facebook, that might have ended the tale. Our paths didn’t cross again until 2010, with a friendship request renewing the relationship. We maintained a phatic awareness of each other, glued together through digital tags to ancient pictures and the occasional comment thread, broaching topics from opposite ends of the political spectrum. The relationship was quiet but persistent, brought to the surface every year with birthday reminders. We were always available to each other for something deeper, something beyond minimal.
This is the emotional soup surrounding news of Tim’s death. He is a lost-and-found friend a few times over, varying in degree. His is a death that echoes and amplifies prior loss and missed opportunities overflowing with future conversations that can never be.
Maybe it was the panic from losing a few childhood friends much too soon. Maybe it was a longing to touch those special moments in high school in ways time won’t allow. Maybe it is the ambiguity of a single relationship being at once both close and distant. Whatever the cause, I’m paralyzed by unworthy grief.
I’d like to attend this service, but I don’t know if I can.
In my senior year at college, I attended my grandfather’s funeral — my first. As “Autumn Leaves” played, I reflected on who this man had been. A carpenter. A scientist. A father and husband. In my mind, I listed the traits that defined him in those roles, both flaws and strengths. I imagined these traits as packages that could be lifted from his body like a gift bag to take home and use. From my grandfather, I took work ethic and all the baggage that it brings. Planning and fighting through a project, attending to its quality, is the way I honor and remember him today.
That metaphysical exercise became how I coped with the deaths that followed. From Scott, I took inquisitive. From my grandmother, the last of that generation, I took flow. These parting gifts don’t always translate to behavior, but they are always available to connect me to their original owner.
It has taken a week of looking for doorways on the floor for me to get to this point with Tim’s death. There is much I still don’t understand, much I still am unable to contemplate without marching back to that circle. However, those minimal Facebook pictures and memories shared by others have aggregated into an opportunity to remember his essence. Through them, I can recall how I experienced Tim for whatever time the Universe permitted. I can own that experience without comparison to other more worthy mourners, and I can take from the gifts he offered.
Maybe it is the memory of Tim’s smile captured in those photos. Maybe it is the desire to look up and move on. Whatever the cause, I have decided to take two parting gifts.
From Tim, I take uninhibited investment. I never spoke with him about his performances, whether he was nervous or self-aware on the stage. From my perspective, Tim didn’t suffer anxiety. For that hour or two, for that song, for that verse, he invested his entirety into the moment. Mistakes were part of the journey, not the end of it, because there was always another note ahead. I could use more of that in my life, so I’m claiming it from Tim.
From Tim I also take raunch. Despite growing up on what would become classic rock, I filled the gap between disco and MTV with John Denver, Bill Cosby and Hooked on Classics. Tim was a Billy Idol guy. Other than practicing for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, the songs I caught him singing most frequently were “White Wedding” and “Eyes Without a Face.”
Despite the punkish exterior, Idol could carry a tune. Tim could carry a tune, too, while revealing the devilish grin of his punkish interior, slapping his butt in mimicry of Idol’s misogynist music videos. He was a nice guy who could also embrace the raunch. For me, that trait carries with it self-forgiveness and acknowledgement of the darker parts. Even if Billy Idol was never the devil incarnate, it was enough of a deviation from my norm to claim Tim’s raunch for myself.
Death is not experienced by the dead. The deceased are either no more or on to the next thing. Death is for the living. We are the ones left to cope, to make sense, to reconcile this inevitable moment with our own, to walk in circles. For me, death is still an endless walk I want to stop. Maybe these words will let me.
My friend Tim died last week.