Sunday, December 18, 2011

Drawing lessons

We are, none of us, old. Not nearly as old as our parents when they were this old.
Parents shouldn't have to write their children's obituaries. — John Bingle
Forget regret, or life is yours to miss. — Jonathan Larson
Take care of yourself. Take … care … of yourself. People are counting on you.
Think how you've made someone else's life better. Appreciate that.
Greet people with a firm handshake — accept a firm handshake in return — and look them in the eye. — Richard Taniguchi
Grieve loss, of course. Of course. Plumb the fathoms of unfathomable sorrow — tethered, God help us, by someone who can draw you back up — for the loss of a child. I couldn't or wouldn't be so easily rescued at the loss of my own children; I can only imagine, but choose not to.

Grieve for young children who lose their parents, and lose the worlds built for them, and instructions for worlds yet unbuilt.

John and Greg visit a sick friend.
Soften your hearts and let the tears come for those who have come upon death, or whose loved ones have known horrible death. Comfort them as you will. Help them ease the image from their eyes, help them shake the real but unreasonable guilt that they could have averted death, as my mom found my dad, and as my sister found our mom, circumstance sparing me.

Grieve, of course. Then, laugh.

Laughter bubbled out of the chapel at the Starbuck-Lind mortuary in my hometown, the laughter of the heavy hearted, saying goodbye to our friend Greg Cox last weekend. I'm afraid I may have laughed too soon and loudly, intruding on Greg's family's need for space and peace and dignity, and I feel bad for that. But I couldn't help it, just as I couldn't help laughing after losing my parents. As vast and dark as their absence, their presence outshines.

People packed the chapel and the wings, people whom Greg touched, through many years (though we mourn it was not more). People came to honor him and his family, of course, but also to share what Greg brought to each of us. Many, many more, it was clear, were thinking of Greg from afar. We were there because of him; we were together again because of him; in ways many and various, we were going about our lives because of something Greg might have done, said, inspired.

Ageless Mr. Taniguchi, our biology teacher, shook our hands the way he had taught us, with knuckle-knocking firmness, and celebrated Greg and us. Greg's death shook him deeply, it was clear, but pride in Greg and the students he taught so long ago restored him, and laughter bubbled out with ours.

An inauspicious start: Greg's second from right in the middle row, I'm third
from right in the back row. The gentleman holding the sign, Bill Heath, spoke
heartfelt memories at Greg's memorial. Bill is a dentist in Vandenberg Village.
Some of us from elementary school through high school — some of us who had lost touch — were much like players in a stage production, having performed our act without knowing how the play ends. So when classmates and longtime friends from Stanford shared their memories, we learned the rest of the story.

Greg's role was consistent: Polite, gracious, with a gremlin's sense of disarming, sometimes disquieting, humor. Smart, yes, but hardworking, and somehow able to break off great chunks of achievement. Greg made me better by being able to hang around him, riding his coattails. Mr. Taniguchi reminded me math and science were not my strengths, but I tilted at windmills just the same. I give Greg credit for making me run to catch up.

His green Mercury Cougar with the velveteen upholstered seats and the opera windows in the back, we learn, conveyed him from our lives to the next.

Stanford friends reminded us of Greg's keen attention to others in conversation, and his ability to draw you out with thoughtful questions. Stanford friends also told what we couldn't know: His ease with talking and playing with their children, the same keen attention to what they had to say. 

At the reception, our friend John Bingle had the brave idea to seek more stories from the Stanford crowd, and I joined to listen. After, friends from long ago, friends brought in by the memory of Greg, spent the evening celebrating who we have become.

My sister, John and I spent the remainder of the weekend as tourists in our hometown, walking the beach at Surf, talking loudly over the unrelenting waves, then strolling La Purísima's mission grounds and up to the cross on the hill. The valley lay clear and crisp and gray-green on a mid-December morning.

Of my last six trips home, three have been to say final goodbyes, and at least one to help in the aftermath of a goodbye. Lompoc's grip on me is dwindling to gossamer, stretching thin.

Dawdling home, I dipped myself in the chill waters of Avila Beach, joining a group that swims every Sunday morning. We broke through the waves, then swam a mile arc out past the Avila Beach pier before trying our luck escaping heavy breakers to flop back onto shore. I had proven an amateur.

It was salve for a weekend strange and wonderful.

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