He has been gone longer than he was here.
I have always been a sentimental person who recognizes the importance of ritual. It’s why I am a funeral director. So I decided, on the 20-year anniversary, I was overdue for a trip to our hometown and where he died. I hadn’t been there since I was in mortuary school, about fifteen years ago. The six-hour drive, and the fact that I don’t really enjoy outdoorsy things, mean it’s an easy trip to put off multiple times.
I had an urge to visit our hangouts. I remembered we didn’t have hangouts. We were just kids. We hung out at the neighborhood park and entertained each other at home with bizarre private jokes and made-up languages and tormented one another with petty acts of vandalism.
Twenty years; his entire lifetime and half of mine in which I produced two more lives. It’s impossible to know who he would have been today. He barely was anyone yet. All his achievements were back in high school, anything brag-worthy, anything a parent would reach for first when describing their son to a stranger. I don’t know if he even knew who he was yet. His life largely centered around partying with friends, going to local concert halls, and working various odd jobs.
It’s hitting me now how much I never knew about him; how much I never will know because it’s impossible. He mentioned wanting kids at one point. But when? How many? What sort of parent would he have been? He had started culinary school. I don’t know if he really wanted to be a chef, or if it was more of a hobby he had and couldn’t think of another major. Was he any good? I don’t think I ever actually tried anything he cooked. He was working in construction, but I don’t know where, or what he was involved in building.
And everything I do know about him is all I’ll ever have. One day several years ago, an old high school friend invited me over because he was cleaning out his house and found several photos of him. Of course I wanted to see them; the image I can’t ever see enough, and will never see in the way I want. I wondered what it would be, what sort of new information I was about to receive. Maybe it was something about college or girlfriends I had never met or adventures he had had without me.
But these unknown photos weren’t that at all. They were photos I had mailed to my friend over our long-distance friendship. I had seen every one of them, and most likely, every photo of him in existence is one I’ve seen, and already have. I knew him his whole life.
A few days after he died, my dad came down and we all went to the place where he was born. We were born in the woods. I was born in a barn and he was born in a trailer. The trailer was gone, and the barn had been turned into a large home. My dad introduced himself as the man who built the barn and the homeowners said they had always wanted to meet him. They just invited in a family of strangers without asking why they were there.
But in driving to the house where we grew up, I wouldn’t be that bold. I can’t just walk up to a stranger’s home and expect they will entertain me. So I settled for driving back and forth a few times, trying to see what I could, see what remained. Our front yard had a cedar tree and an apple tree and a white fence, and a little creek running through it and a wooden bridge across it. I could see the trees were gone, but didn’t know if the creek and bridge were there. I couldn’t get an idea of what sort of people they were, or how long they had been there.
I drove by the old abandoned school in our neighborhood, the one that during my lifetime has not been functional and served mainly as a place for kids to jump off, which I did quite a few times. The school also served as a site for the annual neighborhood swap meet, at which my mom’s pizza bagels and weird natural sodas were loved. The neighborhood still looks like a bunch of hippies live there, and that’s probably exactly who lives there.
He was born, lived his whole life, and died within a space of about 100 miles. A bare start to life.
Going to the lake isn’t this huge emotional experience for me, aside from maybe that first year. I don’t feel the need to perform any sentimental sort of grief rituals or “process” anything. In the past I have collected small rocks and plants, and even used to physically get in the water and swim, but I was probably 25 then and now I have no tolerance for discomfort.
As a child I could certainly tolerate the cold, having been an avid dogsledder when I lived with my dad in Alaska, but I would throw a howling tantrum over my mom’s insistence that we spend our summers on godawful camping and beach trips. The barrage of annoying stimuli is just too much; the people and the wind and the bugs and the noise. I spent many summers pouting in the car, and my first time at this lake must have been around age eleven. I was dreading it just as much as the coast and the campground.
But it was immediately different. The water was warm and the shore was white volcanic ash. It was softer and more comfortable than sand, and that day, there was no wind. Everything about my surroundings was as I demanded constantly: dull, bland, flavorless. Not too hot or too cold, not too loud but not artificially quiet, I found a nice spot that seemed to magically conform to me and I could have an undisturbed outdoor nap. I vowed I’d come back.
And, of course, I never went back until he died. I felt instant revulsion at coming there that first day, which quickly passed, and which my dad said he also felt pass just as quickly. I grudgingly admitted to myself that if he had to die, at least he picked a nice place. I remember the Sheriff’s dive team had marked exactly where the boat went down and we all took another boat to the spot.
But in the few times I’ve been back, I don’t feel the need to visit that exact place. It’s all the same water. So I find what I believe to be that one spot I found when I was eleven, the day I was surprised at this place and its calm.
I had wanted to see him. He wasn’t viewable.
Twenty years later, it’s still a very raw and palpable hurt. There are some things about being thrown into this ordeal that were mercifully easier for me. At least we had a good last day together. We weren’t like so many families whose last words are harsh, or who aren’t in touch. We saw each other, we talked, we had a good day. Mutual yet unspoken recognition of one another being on the cusp of adulthood, wondering what was next. A baby for me and school for him. He was going to be an uncle. He was the first person I told.
Such a death can absolutely ruin your life and shatter your family. We focus so much on the body and the funeral and the paperwork but we can do so very little else.
I didn’t get the viewing or the funeral I needed, so I throw myself into providing those things to everyone else. I suppose I could have handled it much worse.
And there is one more small comfort. There was one memorial service I was able to attend, a packed concert hall full of anarchist-punk-young-people types and our old neighbors and teachers and family friends. Hilarious stories were told; you already know I added mine. Then we all got to go through his stuff, and I was able to snag the Harley-Davidson blanket I had gotten him. During some of the sharing, one of his friends relayed the following words he had supposedly said the Night Before, and sometimes I can imagine him, perhaps in that one peaceful spot at the lake, looking up at the stars as he said,
“I’ve got the best friends and a girlfriend and new socks…if I died tomorrow, I’d die happy.”