Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Eulogy

Part Six.

I was afraid of him.

Not because I thought he would beat me up. Because he had the artistic talent I aspired to and the intellect I wanted and the boldness I never felt I deserved.

I never understood why he liked my friendship, so I was constantly afraid of losing it. I knew I could make him laugh, but that only ever made me feel like a joke. I respected him so deeply that hanging around him was a constant, self-imposed challenge to be worthy of his company. To earn the right to hear his opinions, to deserve to debate the merits of science against the merits of art. He would respect your opposing point of view the way one respects a charging bull; powerful, but stupid, and could not be suffered to run around unchecked.

Once he started college he became an electrical engineer, and for years I was heartbroken. His drawings outclassed the sketches in any of the RPG books we would pore over. His writings held me captivated more than any published fiction I could purchase. I was afraid that he wasn’t living the life that would have led him to his best satisfaction, and I was saddened because my favorite artist had stopped producing art.

I finally challenged him about this life decision a handful of years ago. As he always did, he listened to everything I had to say, and considered deeply before responding. In the end I learned I was wrong. He had done right by himself. He wasn’t always successful and he wasn’t always happy, but he had walked the path that was right by him, secure in the knowledge that he would have made the same major decisions over again if he’d been given the option.

For many years I referred to Kevin as my oldest friend. More recently I would say, “On the day I got married there were eight people in the room. Kevin was one of them.” The first time I planned to get married I knew I wanted him as my Best Man. The second time, too. When I wed my Lady Love, my Charm, he was there as I’d always hoped he would be. Later I would realize that year had also seen the twentieth anniversary of the day I met him.

Whenever I’m trying to craft a project, eventually I hear his voice: “Sometimes you have to shoot the engineer and build the fucking thing.” The wisdom of da Vinci filtered through blunt, southern American charm.

He could cook, too.

Sometimes we wouldn’t speak for years, but he would cross my mind every day of my life. Jokes we shared, games we played, arguments we had, music we liked, movies we quoted, pranks we pulled on each other, all the mutual experiences ricochet and reverberate and make sympathetic imprints onto every corner of my life, from my kitchen counter to my bookshelf; from my computer chair to my driver’s seat.

The only people I’ve known longer, I’m related to.

In my mind, Kevin will always live in the present tense. His legacy and our relationship will shape the rest of my life, much the way it has since my earliest memories of him. I’ll lie down every night assured that if I am the best version of myself, it was because he inspired me to do so.

I miss him.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Acceptance

Part 5, In Which It Goes Just Like the Movies

I had made flight arrangements to return to Chicago on Friday, the day after the viewing. The day after I booked the flight I saw in his obituary that the burial would be on Saturday. My first reaction was to feel crushed; I had wanted to be there until the very end. I was embarrassed that I subconsciously figured the viewing would be the last thing. I wish I had asked someone before I started making flight plans, but the only person I knew how to contact was his fiancĂ©e; I didn’t want to trouble her any more than absolutely necessary.

I immediately started asking myself why this last bit was so important to me. Finally I decided that maybe it’s because that’s what happens in all the movies. It’s cold and rainy, the headstones are all grand and ornate and beautiful, and one person stands all by himself and says something fancy. Ultimately I let the notion go. Kevin wouldn’t give me shit one way or another.

All week long I kept getting the same question: Are you going to be there Saturday? It was easy to say no at first. I had already made travel arrangements. I had to go back to work. I couldn’t bear the cost of the penalty for changing the flight. But every time I was asked my excuse felt thinner. Weaker. Less worthy. I had been given the resources and the permission. I could have made it happen if I wanted to.

Eventually I came to realize the question had been more than casual. Slowly I gleaned that I wasn’t simply being asked. I was being invited. Requested directly by his siblings and his parents. “Will you?” turned into “I hope you can,” and I started figuring out logistics. When I heard, “Let me know if we can help you,” I fell headlong into an inevitable force akin to gravity, and started contacting everyone who needed to know that I’d be gone for two more days.

I awoke Saturday morning to grey light pouring in through the windows of my guest bedroom. Someone knocked and told me we’d be trying to leave half an hour earlier than planned, which meant I had to haul ass to make it happen. I did, and made it to the car in a respectable amount of time.

Cave Hill cemetery in Louisville is goddamn gorgeous. Every grave is a unique monument bearing ornate and detailed sculptures. During the drive late season snow had turned to sleet before finally succumbing to a mild, yet persistent rain. A small tent had been erected over the site, under which perhaps half of us were able to crowd for the final ritual.

Only two people stood to speak, the second of which was his Kevin’s father. He read from a small, leather bound notebook in which he had handwritten his words. What he said is not for me to share, but I can say this: he looked up once during the reading and his eyes met mine. Given the sentence he had just ended, I knew that there was no more appropriate nor necessary place for me to have been standing than right where I was at that time.

I got to say my own piece later – but that’s for later.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Interlude

Part Four, In Which an Old Acquaintance Gets a New Visitor

Before this month, the closest I’ve been to someone who died was named Kristin. It was five years ago. A brief text message broke the news. She had been combating cancer for about six months and I hadn’t noticed. We had lost touch but for the occasional social media comment, so I forgave myself for not knowing . . . . until I scrolled down her page a bit. She hadn't been hiding it.

Kristin was one of the Old Guard, the friends I made in the back half of high school and for whom I kept affection – if not in touch – through most of college. I’d only been back to Dallas once since she died, and that was to introduce my Lady Love to my childhood home during Christmas; it didn’t feel right to visit Kristin’s grave at that time. But this time I was in town for the specific purpose of attending a wake with the people who knew both him and her, so I figured I was In the Emotional Neighborhood.

I didn’t know exactly where she was. It took some scrolling before I was able to find her obituary. I knew that she’d spent her final months having moved up from Houston to be nearer her parents and brother, and I was correct to assume she hadn’t travelled far after her death. She was in Restland, a cemetery whose name is so on the nose I couldn’t take it seriously. I kept imagining clowns passing out pillows and shushing people, like a carnival held in a library. Every few square acres are uniquely named, separated by walkways and roadways to make the place easier to navigate. They call them ‘gardens’. Makes sense. It’s where you plant people.

The staff were very helpful in helping me locate her Bench, a large slab of stone this place carves your name and dates into if you’ve been cremated. I hadn’t known that. They also said she was in the bench. I didn’t ask.

I was handed a map and was given a rough location and a very inaccurate sense of how far I would have to walk to get there. I got a little lost. It took me most of an hour before I found it, checking the map from time to time, eventually forsaking the twisted pavement in favor of traipsing between headstones and apologizing to those whose names were etched or embossed into them.

The walk tired me out enough to shift my mood from somber to snarky. I considered and discarded several clever things I would say when I got there. Though I had known her for years I never got comfortable enough to be myself when I was around her. I had always regretted that she had only seen me for what I presented, never for who I was. Maybe I’m wrong.

Once I found her I sat down and made awkward small talk for a few minutes just like they do in the movies. I beat around the bush. I said all the things I wish I’d said when I had the chance.

I told her about Kevin’s death. He had been the one to tell me about hers, so it felt appropriate to bear the message on his behalf. I admitted I hadn’t cried yet. I told her I was curious and concerned about what that meant. I talked about the fact that thinking about that fact nearly brought the tears, but that talking about it made them go away again. I expressed frustration that I couldn’t find an emotional release. “Then again,” I said, "I’ve been on some quality antidepressants these days, so maybe that’s getting in the way of my catharsis.”

Then I laughed myself stupid. It was the strongest emotional burst I’d felt since I heard the news. I took a little time to recognize and be grateful that it finally happened and that it felt so pleasant.

The walk back to the car was brisk, sunny, and quiet . . . . until I remembered that Kristin was, like the rest of the Old Guard, a fan of They Might Be Giants. I don’t know how common it is for someone to march between the markers of the brief lives of former Texans while singing Birdhouse In Your Soul at the top of his lungs, but anyone within earshot caught an earful that afternoon.

It was my first time for that, too.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Payback

Part Three, In Which Yours Truly Finally Shows

I’ve never been to Ohio for a proper visit. I helped Kevin get his stuff to Cincinnati in the mid aughts when he got a new job, but that was the only time. After I moved to Chicago he’d all but beg me to come down. He made friends he wanted to introduce me to. He fell in love and they moved in together and he wanted me to visit their home. His family was close by, and their Halloween celebrations are legendary.

For every reason he invited me, I always had another excuse. Didn’t have a car. Couldn’t afford airfare. Too busy. I felt bad every time I turned him down, but there was Always Later. Every time my wife would bring up the topic of going on vacation I would stress how much I needed to visit him before I went anywhere exotic, but the plans never materialized.

He sacrificed time with his family to be with me when I got married. I couldn’t do less than to be with him when they put him in the ground.

When a major event like this happens there can be any number of days or events before it feels real. It’s like experiencing the world’s most lucid dream. A piece of you is waiting for someone to come in and tell you it’s all a mistake, there was a major misunderstanding and you’re going to wake up tomorrow and none of this was actually happening, you’ve imagined it all. At some point reality will assert itself and you’ll realize it’s all true, but until then, it’s surreal as fuck.

The viewing was early Thursday evening. My Lady Love had flown in to be my support system, and not for the first time I knew I couldn’t have asked for a better life companion. She held my hand as we walked into the room where I knew his body lay, but I wasn’t ready to lay my eyes upon him just yet. I needed it to be a choice, not a surprise. I spoke with his family first, making a bit of small talk amidst the hugs and handshakes and condolences, all while pointedly not glancing around lest I lay eyes on him by accident. I finally took several deep breaths whispered some words of encouragement to myself before turning my face toward the opposite end of the room.

For the first time since I heard the news – the first time in years – I saw my friend’s face. Easily recognizable in profile. I wanted to hug him, but there was a coffin in the way.

I worked my way through the room, stopping from time to time to briefly chat with another family member. Finally I found myself not ten feet away, my Lady Love holding my arm. She noted me working up the strength to walk over and pay the proverbial Final Respects. I didn’t want to go . . . so I started chastising myself using his voice. In my mind I heard him calling me names, playfully mocking my discomfort. “Get over here, ya punk.” When I was finally ready Nikki clocked it, and she asked if I wanted her to go with me. “Not the first time,” I told her. She understood and let go of my arm, and I walked over to look my Best Man in the face. I tried to contain myself, but I couldn’t help but burst into laughter almost immediately.

That fucker still had Bitchy Resting Face. Of all the people in the room, I figure he had the most cause.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Reunion Tour

Part Two: In Which This Guy Remembers

I’ve never flown first class before. It was always something I would rather have saved for an overseas trip when I’m forced to be in a plane for many many hours. But making travel plans at the last minute eliminates the cheaper choices, and thus I found myself rationalizing that this was a sufficiently unique occasion to experience a new indulgence.

I spent most of Friday and Saturday doing Normal Things, because I had that privilege. I wasn’t being asked or required to Do Anything other than Be There, so I was permitted to pretend it Wasn’t Happening for a couple of days. Sunday morning I awoke with just enough time to pack and head to the airport. I put it off until I was running so late I had to sprint to the gate before they gave my seat away, which they were in the middle of doing as I hit the counter. I even got scolded by the guy who wanted my spot, “What, did you run through an airport, dude?” with the sort of entitled attitude that only a mediocre white man could match.

The timing of the flight itself was such that I missed the first few hours of the wake. I was in such a hurry and frame of mind that it took a couple of hours for me to realize I was at Nizar’s parents’ house, a place whose threshold I hadn’t crossed in a generation. In my defense, it wasn’t usually decorated with photo trees displaying Kevin Through the Ages.

The house was mournful, yet full of laughter as we shared stories. The first round was about all the times Kevin had been arrested after ignoring his latest collection of speeding tickets. His father learned that day that this had happened more often than he’d thought.

We also talked about his cars, another staple of Kevin’s life. He didn’t exactly drive a car. It was more like he would don car shaped armor which protected him at high velocities. To Kevin, the space between the gas pedal and the floorboard was wasted, and he lived to eliminate that gap entirely. Every time he got behind the wheel, it was like he was trying to steal precious seconds from the hands of Death to add back on to his life. Every tenth of a second mattered. Every hundredth.

The next day I drove up to Denton where our college years overlapped a little. I have many memories there which have nothing to do with him, and I tried to visit those, but kismet kept intruding. While walking through my favorite used bookstore cater-cornered from the Courthouse on the Square, I ran across a book. It’s name and title had been lodged in my memory for over twenty years.

I saw them during the opening credits of John Carpenter’s Vampires. The movie was a backlash to the recent popularity of the Interview with the Vampire series. We were fans, but Carpenter’s movie was made to reestablish the gory horror of the subgenre. “Have you ever seen a vampire? They’re not romantic. They’re not hopping around in rented formalwear seducing everybody in sight with cheesy Eurotrash accents.” It was gritty, it was brutal, it was funny, it was exciting, and we loved it. Quoted it for years. I had always resolved to read the book, but never once did I make an effort to find it.

Walking randomly through the bookstore, I saw it. Its cover was facing outward on a shelf at my eye level, a trade paperback. I blinked hard, and said out loud, “You’re fucking kidding me.” No one was kidding me. It was the book. Now I own it.

It wasn’t the last time I made the statement that day. An hour or so later I drove over to the UNT campus, and found a convenient spot in the parking garage. After I got out of the car I saw it was space number 42, and I tipped my hat to Life, the Universe, and Everything. That night I tried to distract myself with television, and was immediately greeted with the line, “My best friend, Sherlock Holmes, is dead.” I offered a few choice words to no one.

Remembering is easy, as it turns out. It happens all by itself.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Admission

Part One, In Which Our Man Gets His Club Card

It was late Thursday last when my phone rang. One a.m., big hand on the twelve. Name on the Call ID was Jason, one of the people in life I refer to as the Old Guard (aka The Usual Gang of Idiots, though I never told them that). I met them in high school and gamed with them through college; Rifts, Risk, D&D, Twisted Metal 2: World Tour, StarCraft, GoldenEye, Halo, DOA 3, F-Zero X. If it used a D20 or offered four person multiplayer, we were together for it. We waited in line for the midnight showings of The Matrix and X-Men and LOTR and the dreaded prequels. We passed around the fantasy novels and the non-mainstream comic books. We ate delivery Chinese food with chopsticks, and if IHOP was a school we’d all have a degree.

Kevin was always at the center of that circle. He was the one who introduced half of us to the other half. If we tried anything new, it was probably his idea. If there was a get together or an outing, he was the most decisive among us to organize it; the center around whom we all gelled. When Kevin moved to Cincinnati I started to drift away from the group, and after I moved to Chicago I never kept up with them anymore save for Kevin, who would make a few trips to see me over the years.

My first thought was that the late night phone call must have been a mistake. I didn’t even know Jason had my number after I got a Chicago area code, so . . . maybe a pocket dial? Maybe drunk? I was almost asleep for the night, and decided whatever it was could wait until morning. Some distant part of me dimly reminded me that good news never comes in the middle of the night. I told that part to be quiet.

One urgent voice mail, one returned call, and fifteen minutes later I was gently calling my wife’s name to wake her up and tell her the news. I was not yet ready to handle this alone.

My Lady Love has dealt with death on both personal and professional levels. I’ve heard and seen her coach others through grief many times; she tells them it’s like suddenly one day someone hands you a membership card to a club you never wanted to join. Sooner or later we all lose someone. They may be important, they may be close, or they may simply have been around for a while. However and whenever it happens, it links us together in a way that poets and parents and clergy and counselors have been trying to explain ever since our species first learned to grunt.

But you never really know what it’s like until you get there. You can hear the description of a room to every detail, be prepared for every nuance and every surprise, but the room always looks different to each person who walks in, filtered through our own senses and experiences and emotional states and our connections to those who walk in with us, and links us who walked in before us, and impresses itself upon us as much as we are malleable enough to allow. The only assurance I can give you is that the room is big enough for everyone to have a space within it, and when you walk in, everyone turns to look.

“Kevin died,” Jason said.

Hi. My name is Mark. I’m new here.

The next few hours were . . . well. It was difficult to concentrate. In calmer moments I tried to lock down logistics. I emailed everyone to whom I had responsibilities over the next week and told them I was probably going out of town for a few days. I decided I should pack a bag and wondered if I had any clothing that was black and wouldn’t be mistaken for a fashion statement. I made a list of all the people who wouldn’t know unless I was the one who told them, and tried to figure out the best time and method to tell them. I decided I didn’t want to make people wait, but I didn’t feel the need to tell them in the middle of the night. The news would be just as bad in the morning.

I called an old friend first, and I tried to reach my little sister. I told my parents. One person was harder to tell than others, but that was because we hadn’t spoken in fifteen years - but that story belongs to itself.

Monday, January 29, 2018

What's Not There

The other night a friend asked how I am. We were at a party, and hadn’t shared a conversation for a few weeks. He asked casually, not putting any special emphasis in his tone, his eye betraying no deeper meaning. Nonetheless I knew I could skip the small talk and go right into talking about how much my meds and therapy have been helping my mood the last few weeks.

Slipping into depression is like being in a room where the breathable air is slowly leaking out. The effect is inconsistent. Sleep becomes mismanaged. Logical errors in thought are explained away and compensated for. It’s difficult to notice before it turns severe, and by that point Pride has already snuck in and moved the EXIT sign to the wrong door (which is locked, bricked up from the other side, and once you finagle and hammer your way through those obstacles it turns out to be a closet filled with snacks and Netflix to trick you into staying. It works).

This same friend had contacted me privately a few weeks ago. When I posted about my most recent Bout, he offered guidance as one who was some steps ahead on the same path. At this party the other night I had been trying to sneak out and go home, but sneaking is a challenge when you’re built like an ogre and dress like The Matrix takes place in Texas. I even had one foot literally out the door when I heard him call my name, but – introverted as I am – his request for my company made me happy to spend a few more minutes in a loud room of mostly strangers.

Depression has been a companion of mine for many years, but this is the first time I’ve fought it with professional help; the results are difficult to quantify. As my friend and I talked he helped me to realize that when depression starts to abate, it’s not about what you feel, but which thoughts and feelings aren’t there anymore. One day you simply catch yourself in the middle of an average day and are surprised to realize that you didn’t struggle to get out of bed that morning. Or call yourself worthless. Or hope to get hit by a bus. When you stop to think about it, you didn’t do those things yesterday, either . . . . huh.

I’m not walking around feeling good per se. But there is a lack of feeling bad, and I’m looking forward to moving into the void with a few projects I’ve been putting off.