I’ve been torn in many directions over the last few months; trying to find time to work on the novel that I have been writing in bits and spurts, exhausting myself with my family and work responsibilities, cramming friendships into the bits of space left over, picking up projects here and there to help this one or that. In the middle of that, grieving the loss of a good friend who I still cannot believe is gone. And still beyond all that, the steady guilt of ignoring this place, of letting another month go by with silence here.
In January, in the middle of a blizzard, my kid brother moved out of our house in the most painful way. He’s been our charge for the better part of a decade, so the schism was not without grief and bitter feelings. And yet, we carry on. Worrying from afar and hoping that it will all work out. Trying to ignore the pain that we all inadvertently cause each other as we bumble about our lives.
This is just life. Whether you will it or not, you move along on the ebbs and flow of its waves. Time and tide wait for no one and you can do nothing about the words that you should have written yesterday. Or the day before that. Or the day before that.
My friend Del died in February, which made everything else seem very trivial. Life simply stopped for me for a while, as my everyday duties became complicated by grief. He has been in my life for my entire adult life, so it took me some time to adjust to who I might be as an adult without him there as my constant friend and support. I found out at work, so I locked myself into an empty office and sat on the floor for a long time, until I figured out how to stand again. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a metaphor for the days to come.
My Beloved, when I told him, just said, “No, it is too awful. It’s just too awful,” which I still can’t help but agree with him. It’s just too awful.
At my friend’s funeral, the pastor read an Auden poem — you know it — the one with the final line about how nothing now will ever come to any good. My friend, sacrilegious at best, would have deeply enjoyed a pastor reading a gay love elegy at his wake, once he got past the idea of a pastor showing up for his wake at all. But it was a good poem to choose, because Auden had the right of it. I was, at best, semi-functional while my mind struggled with reconciling the impossible (he was now dead) with the possible (and yet the world went on without him). I spoke at his funeral to a crowd so large that it was standing room only in the biggest room the funeral parlor had available. He was not a famous man, and yet, he touched people. He was a sincere man, who cared about people, who was good at loving people. That — and a puckish, adventurous nature — made him so special.
Loving people is not something that comes easily to me, but my friend made me better at it. When I heard the news, my first thought was, “But who will love me the way that he loves me?” And what I meant was that he loved me without expectation or judgment, which is an incredibly rare way to be loved. Being around him was like slipping into your comfy slippers at the end of the hard day, after you’ve locked your house’s doors against the unsafe world outside. And you just couldn’t help but love him back.
That would explain all the people at the funeral.
Under ordinary circumstances, I do not enjoy speaking in front of people. But I could have spoken for hours, telling stories of how my friend has touched my life over the 20 years of our friendship. But each of his brothers was to speak after me, so I kept it short and told only one story, which thankfully made the crowd laugh, because they knew him the way that I knew him. By the time we made it to the party after the reception, I so exhausted that I fell asleep sitting up in a living room bristling with people.
The depth of my grief in the first weeks surprised me. I have lost so many people and animals over the last two years that I wondered if it was cumulative grief, but I don’t think so. My friend was a part of my past and my future, and to have that lifeline removed so suddenly was enough to bowl me over. He was always there for me. Now he can’t be.
His death was so sudden that my calendar is still marked with the plans we had together. We had been trying to have a shared house vacation together for years, but our plans kept getting marred by other obligations and, even once, a surgery. At last, this summer it was finally going to actually happen, and I was so looking forward to exploring a new place with him. Those days, the ones where we had already had plans to be together, are going to be hard days. He was going to be visiting me again in another two weeks, for the wedding of one of our many shared friends. That will be hard too.
My friend is gone, but I hear him all the time. When I open the pantry to pull out an onion, I remember him telling me to keep the onions and potatoes in separate baskets. A stainless steel pan comes with a reminder – in his voice – to heat them up before you drop the oil in. He helped me set up my first fish tank, and I cannot think of undergravel filters without thinking about him teaching me about why I needed one. My oldest fish, a pleco named Socrates, is now eleven. In my music room, I have a Japanese fan that he bought me a lifetime ago when I moved into an apartment, which has followed me to every house since. I have so many of these physical momentoes — a bottle of mead, giant spools of yarn, bottles of Scotch. But most valuable to me is all of the advice that he gave me over so many years, which I always hear in his baritone voice in my head. And the love. He taught me that I was worth loving, because he loved me without wanting anything from me.
And so, he is gone, but he is not gone too, not in the way that other people I have lost have gone. I touched his body, but a world without him in it seems impossible. He will be in mine forever, because he helped make me who I am. I’ve returned to the waking world again, but I am glad to have been able to stop – to call in too sad to work, to have been able to think about all the people that really matter to me and how lucky I am to have such love in my life. I think it was his last gift.