A close death sinks into us like a stone. It goes to terrible depths sometimes before we realize that we are still among the living. They call this experience grief. Grief is not sadness or despair. It is something much more profound, for in it is contained an aching joy, a celebration of each breath, a gratitude more blessed than prayerful thanks. It is the storm that comes to settle the dust for a while and allow us to see things clearly for a change. What we see is the pure moment, unclouded and quiet, amazingly present in vivid colors we’ve only caught a muted glimpse of previously. What would it be like to have no memories and no expectations, only this? What would it be like to know the incredible gift of human life without the burden of finding, or inventing, some reason for it? Grief teaches.
Ten years ago today I lost a dear friend and ordinary time paused for a while as I grappled with the loss. The hollow sound of that stone rattling down deeper inside still haunts me. But in spite of the swell of dust around me I would swear I walk with a lighter heart now.
My friend and I were songwriting collaborators. Oh yes, we had a little success- one of our songs charted for Kathy Mattea, another was featured on a landmark bluegrass recording by Tony Rice. It paid a few bills, but we didn’t care. What mattered was the doing and the sense of shared purpose. As young men we’d launched a dream finally to sail it all the way to tiny island in the reaches without a map or compass, guided only by instinct. And then it was over.
I loved him as a brother. He was brutally honest with me, and we fought as brothers sometimes do. We were mentors to each other with our separate skills, sharing what we knew, borrowing what we lacked. We were strong allies and we were fierce rivals. These are the more complicated aspects of male bonding.
His death was a completely unexpected accident. If you didn’t know him you may not be able to grasp how unimaginable it was to all who did. He was sort of… larger than life, kind of a walking character out of mythology, pretty much indestructible. That’s how his friends would still describe him today. But he was all too human, and suddenly that storm drove the dust down to mud at my feet. I’d never felt anything as deep as the stone in my gut before. It hurt like hell. And yet I never felt more alive either- alive in the sense of being electrified, emotionally ecstatic, hyper-aware, washed clean of the dust.
I am four years older now than he was when he passed, but somehow he is still the elder voice up ahead calling back to me over his shoulder to warn about what’s in my path around some blind corner. That’s one of the peculiar illusions surrounding death- we can never really see our relationship with the departed as anything other than the way it stood in life, even as we age. That’s probably for the best.
I owe my friend a great deal for the things he gave me while he was here. Things like encouragement, respect, inspiration, commiseration, and plutonic love.
But this anniversary isn’t a painful reminder, nor is it a frightening wake-up call. Far from it. I have thought about it all morning, not once with a tear in my eye or regrets in my heart. One of his songs, a happy one, has been going round my head for hours.
About this lighter heart I swear I’m walking with- I became aware of it gradually. I found myself saying yes to things I’d have said no to before. I was overcome with a desire to give back, and teach. I became curious about things I’d overlooked. I’ve understood a little more about compassion. These tendencies were all among my friend’s strong suits.
Perhaps when our time comes we’re given two options. The first is to go on to whatever waits beyond this world, a heaven or an afterlife, whatever that may turn out to be. The second is to divide up our soul’s energy and wisdom among loved ones, giving them each a parcel to help ease their burdens and guide them. I think I know which option my friend would have chosen. Perhaps I owe him even more for the things he left behind.
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